If you’re running for office, canvassing for a candidate, or simply participating in debates leading up to next month’s elections, then read no further: You’re doing your job as a citizen and as an architect.
For everyone else, here’s an observation by 20th-century journalist H.L. Mencken on the election cycle:
“If a politician found he had cannibals among his constituents, he’d promise them missionaries for dinner.”
As a reader of the reporter and satirist, I find much to admire in his witty and frequently acerbic writings. Mencken was a master at skewering false pieties and hypocrisy, whatever the brand—secular or sacred. And surely around election time, there’s much to skewer: the distortions, the crowd-pleasing appeals directed at our baser instincts, and the remarkable instinct of candidates to focus on trivial posturing when issues such as affordable housing, access to medical care, the decay of our nation’s infrastructure, and climate change are hung out to dry.
Yet, once I get past the chuckle, I find myself parting company with Mencken’s blanket criticism of the election process. I’m uncomfortable with the punch lines that slip too easily from laughter to a quality of cynicism, which frankly I find to be corrosive to a democracy. Yes, there’s much to criticize in this, or any. election year. Running for office is a messy process. And how often have we been disappointed, heartbroken, or enraged by candidates who, once in office, become bloated with self-importance while simultaneously shrinking in size? The very saturation of the airwaves and the money being thrown at spinning narratives of exaggerated hopes and fears are enough to make one’s eyes glaze over.
But as citizens and as architects, we can’t afford to disengage. We can’t allow ourselves to be seduced by cynicism even if, at times, the choice may seem to be between the lesser of two evils. Tempting though it may be for an exhausted and disillusioned electorate to give up on government and simply tune it out, the last time I looked at our Constitution, it began with the words “We the People.” Government is us. If it’s not working as well as it should be, then we should be the ones to fix it. And, by the way, more architects should be in government.
Earlier this year, the historian John M. Barry published the book Roger Williams and the Creation of the American Soul about a man who played an extraordinary role in creating the United States. It’s a book worth reading as we approach Election Day.
Barry makes clear in the book that Williams did more than just settle the colony of Rhode Island and found the Baptist church in America: He defined by example the relationship between the engaged individual and government, and set the course for the great experiment that is America, an experiment that is tested and validated—or not—by the role we play as citizens. Read the book and be inspired by what one man was able to do against unbelievable odds. Thanks to him we have it easy, which ironically may be at the root of why so many people don’t bother to engage in the crucial business of self-government.
But just because we have it easier than Williams, we can’t take a pass when it comes to our responsibility as citizens. In the end, the greatest threat to the promise of America may not be politicians or missionaries—the greatest threat may be cynicism and indifference.
Jeff Potter, FAIA, 2012 President