Political campaigns are remote these days. Not face to face. Our contact with candidates is confined mostly to viewing their electronic faces in TV ads or listening to their pre-packaged policy statements in televised forums.
Nobody is to blame, not even the candidates, for what has happened to yank the fun and excitement out of election season, leaving many voters disengaged.
The devolution of politics as a fun sport with deeper meaning did not happen overnight. It took decades to turn political campaigning into the dead zone it is today.
It’s impossible to return to Territorial Hawaii when the election season centered on festivities such as campaign luaus with tables laden with steaming laulaus, smoked kalua pork and squares of homemade prune cake — Hawaiian hospitality offered in hopes of gaining goodwill for a political party or a particular candidate.
Or the well-attended political rallies in public parks where candidates would often surprise the crowds by jumping on stage to dance hula or belt out their favorite Hawaiian song. Even funny moments, such as GOP candidate Ben Dillingham in his run for Honolulu County supervisor in 1946 singing “Three Blind Mice” in Hawaiian.
In more recent times, I remember unexpected and sometimes engaging visits from politicians, canvassing door-to-door, pitching their candidacy and offering small gifts such as potholders, pencils or sewing kits.
Today, my own longtime incumbent state House Rep. Bert Kobayashi never seems to walk the neighborhood. Instead he sends us flyers to boast about his legislative accomplishments — junk mail that gets tossed in the trash along with letters from insurance companies seeking business and pamphlets from real estate agents urging us to sell our house.
Political campaigns of the past offered more than just a fun break from daily routines, they also could prompt deeper thinking about creative ways to correct the festering ills of the community — to consider where we want to go in the future and how we could work together to get there.
As academic researcher Russ Roberts wrote in an essay in The New York Times on Sunday, “Human beings want purpose. We want meaning. We want to belong to something larger that ourselves.”
Politicians’ lack of personal contact with the community today has made them weaker, out of touch with the people they hope to represent.
“As it has gotten less personal, politicians are less able to find out what their constituents need,” says lawyer and lobbyist Rick Tsujimura.
Tsujimura is the author of “Campaign Hawaii: An Inside Look at Politics in Paradise,” a book that traces lessons he learned from a half century of participation in campaigns ranging from John Burns to Kirk Caldwell.
Interestingly, Tsujimura’s first job on a campaign was as the boss of the supply room in the 1970 gubernatorial campaign of Burns — a room he said was filled with bumper stickers, refrigerator magnets, sewing kits, pencils, potholders and other kinds of political paraphernalia to hand out to voters.
He said different campaign workers were constantly raiding the room, hoping to get more stuff to pass out to voters in their own neighborhoods.
Of course today, political hopefuls get an earful of verbiage from critics on social media and via coordinated email blasts but that kind of remote connection is easier to dismiss as tirades from special interests or cranks rather than a sincere query of someone looking a candidate directly in the eye and asking, “What specifically will you do to stop the homeless from continually commandeering our neighborhood park? I feel unsafe going there with my children.”
Tsujimura says the pandemic has been offered as a reason for the lack of personal interaction in campaigns but he says Hawaii’s politicians were already headed that way, distancing themselves from the concerns of the proverbial “man at the bus stop.”
“The personal contact takes a lot of time. A lot of candidates just don’t want to take that time. Politics today is more about winning than a genuine crusade to make Hawaii better. It is more about wanting to be in office and once elected to cling to power,” says Tsujimura.
There is also technology. When he started working on campaigns in the 1970s in Honolulu, Tsujimura says there were just three TV stations and no internet. Now there are dozens of ways for a politician to disseminate a political message electronically on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook and cable TV without the need to show up to talk to people directly.
Tsujimura says this has given rise to voters’ sense of unease that nobody out there is listening to them.
Political writer Tom Coffman says the lack of excitement about local politics today is rooted in the tripling of the population after statehood that changed Hawaii’s political scene from a small town social affair into a more impersonal, remote activity.
He remembers when it was de rigueur for politicians to show up daily at community coffee hours and host regular stew rice dinners in public school cafeterias.
Coffman is a former news reporter who became a researcher and documentary filmmaker who has written about Hawaii’s politics in numerous books including “Catch a Wave,” a case study of political campaigning in early statehood Hawaii.
He says another key factor that has made residents less thrilled by politics is the lack of two strong political parties.
Hawaii’s GOP initially began to lose its grip after the Democratic Party’s 1954 revolution when returning Asian American veterans from World War II running as Democrats took over the Territorial Legislature from the Republicans for the first time and have held that power ever since.
A further decline in power for Hawaii’s GOP happened during the so-called Pat Robertson Revolution in the late 1980s when the national party’s conservative faction aligned with the party’s mainstream candidates to fight abortion rights. That prompted popular Republican women politicians including Donna Ikeda, Virginia Isbell and Ann Kobayashi to switch to become Democrats.
Coffman points out that even though Democrats had a lock on winning, politics was more exciting in the days when Democrats had inter-party dissident groups such as the John Burns faction versus the more progressive Tom Gill group working hard against each other in the 1970 gubernatorial primary, and the faction in the state Senate in the 1980s that included then-Sens. Neil Abercrombie, Ben Cayetano and Charles Toguchi whose reformist ideas were constantly at war with the old guard faction of Senate President Richard Wong.
There are dozens of reasons Hawaii politics has become numbingly dull rather than fun, including the power of public worker and building trades unions and special interest groups to determine the outcome of elections, and the huge amounts of campaign contributions needed to win any election, even a Honolulu City Council seat.
And fewer political reporters doing in-depth analysis of the candidates and instead giving outsized attention to televised candidate debates, political polls and candidate questionnaires that the aspiring politicians often answer with predictable positions that sound alike.
I don’t know the answer to how to make political campaigns in Hawaii more exciting, fun and meaningful. I wish I did. But perhaps there’s one suggestion to candidates as a start: Engage with members of the public in person to offer one or two immediate and doable — not pie in the sky — ways you will change their lives for the better. And to voters, hold the candidates’ feet to the fire. If you don’t you will end up with the government you deserve.