You’re wondering what these two things could possibly have in common. Don’t deny it, I can hear you trying to figure it out. Allow me to explain.
I used to work in theater and, as you may or may not know, theater people like to tell stories. One of my favorites was the story of the Big Pink Two-by-Four. Once upon a time, there was a production with a great big set, and the carpenters were way behind. The hard-working technical director was doing his best, but he was tired of answering questions from the director about when everything would be finished, so one day he painted a large chunk of two-by-four bright pink and screwed it to a wall right smack dab in the middle of the set. Sure enough, that night after rehearsal the director said “Hey Bob*, what’s up with the big pink two-by-four?” Bob said, “We needed it to hold something in place, I’ll take it down tomorrow,” and that was it for the director’s scenic notes.
The next day, Bob and his crew worked on getting caught up and nobody was allowed to touch the big pink two-by-four. That night, again, at the end of rehearsals, the director said to Bob, “What’s up with the big pink two-by-four? I thought it would be gone today.” Bob said, “You’re right, we’ll take it down first thing tomorrow,” and that was the end of the scenic notes.
This went on for the rest of the week. Every the day, the carpenters would work on catching up, every night Bob would promise to take down the big pink two-by-four, and Bob was able to work without the stress of having to explain night after night that the build had been crazy and they were doing their best to get everything done. You see, the big pink two-by-four was such a glaring flaw that the director’s attention was drawn away from all the other things that needed to be done. When the day came that everyone was caught up and the set was done, the big pink two-by-four came down. That night, the director saw his pretty finished set, sans two-by-four, and he was happy, and all was good. Since then, “big pink two-by-four” has been code for, “Quick, we need a distraction!”**
What does this have to do with politics? I have have long suspected that politicians have their own set of big pink two-by-fours that they pull out in election years for us voters. The political pink two-by-fours differ form the original in that they are actual issues, not something that was just made up to cause a diversion, but they are very distracting. They are the issues that are both emotional and polarizing. People know where they stand, and they stand there firmly, with both feet planted on the ground. They also tend to be questions with a “yes” or “no” answer and little room for middle ground. Some current examples are gay marriage and legal abortions. I do not, in any way, mean to imply that these aren’t important issues. I feel very strongly about both, and they are things that need to be taken seriously. However, in the grand scheme of things, they don’t have the same impact on the way our country runs as something like healthcare reform, or what exactly we are going to do to get more people employed, nor are they as complicated. Candidates and constituents are either for or against, and it’s an easy way to get people on your side in sixty seconds or less. And we, the constituents, fall for it and get so distracted by the emotional issues that we often forget to ask questions about the rest of our candidates’ platforms. I would even go so far as to say that there are candidates who build their entire platform on pink two-by-fours to hide the fact that they don’t have a strong stance on anything else.
In a way, I think this is what the Occupy Wall Street movement is all about. It seems to me that the Occupiers are saying “Stop talking to us about the big pink two-by-fours and tell us what you plan to do about the rest of this shit.” It makes me feel hopeful. I think we will all be better off if we watch for the warning signs. When we notice that a candidate is relying heavily on getting people all riled up with emotional issues, we need to take the time to look into where they stand on things like economics and foreign policy. To put it in the basest of terms: politicians these days push the rhetoric, follow up with hot button issues and sprinkle in a few serious notes for credibility. From now on, my goal is to look at my candidates in reverse order. I want to start with the serious, know their stance on the hot buttons and ignore the rhetoric. (Especially since they all seem to be stealing their rhetoric from someone else these days.)
The problem, of course, is that I can’t stop being passionate about the big pink two by fours. What happens when I have to choose between someone who has a great plan for economic reform, but is firmly against gay marriage and another candidate who doesn’t seem to know squat about decreasing unemployment, but promises to fight tooth and nail for better sex education and reproductive rights? I don’t know. The best I can do is make sure I learn as much as possible about everyone and make the best decisions I can.
*Names have been changed because I can’t remember who this story was originally about.
**Costume designers use the code “Shiny Buttons” because, apparently, a set of big shiny brass buttons accomplishes the same thing.