A nasty and insidious pest is ramping up here in Maine that will be swarming all around us over the next 10 weeks before disappearing into dark hibernation.
Locusts? No, the pesky creatures I reference are a species known as “LTEs,” or Letter to the Editor writers.
While they randomly show up year-round, it’s during the two-month period prior to each election when they organize and attempt to create a buzz by producing maximum noise with zero enlightenment.
In short, they provide little substance and mostly fizz, like a Diet Coke.
It is common for most political campaigns to use the same tired playbook of election tactics: lawn signs, bumper stickers, social media, knocking on doors, direct mail, endorsements from other politicians, and the coordinated and rote process of campaign friends, volunteers and paid staffers writing letters to local newspapers in support of the candidate.
These letters share the originality of a fortune cookie, with the same aura of mass production.
“I’m writing to support Candidate ABC because of the great work he/she has done in the past or will do in the future.”
“I’ve known Candidate XYZ for many years and I think that he/she is really swell. Please join me in voting for him/her.”
“Candidate JKL is incredibly effective and doing great work in Scarborough, Augusta, Washington and everywhere! Please vote for her/him!”
The problem with most (if not all) of these letters is that rarely do they reflect the critical thinking and emotive judgment from community members just wanting to lend subjective voice to the democratic process. Instead, they usually reflect an organized political marketing machine where cohorts, surrogates, volunteers and even spouses and other family members target various publications (including The Forecaster) and schedule LTEs to appear over the two months just prior to an election.
It’s not that these letter writers don’t like and support their candidates; no doubt they do. And I’m sure that each of these 150-word authors believe they are participating in a legitimate and genuine expression of free speech, central to our democracy. But, they are (mostly) wrong.
I know of one elected official in Cumberland County who purportedly took the helpful step of actually composing many of the seemingly supportive letters herself – then forwarded the letters to various supporters to submit as their own. Legal? Sure. Ethical? Not so much.
The problem is that we as a society, nationally and here in Maine, keep drifting farther and farther away from meaningful political engagement in favor of a system of short-cuts and symbolism.
When few people invest the time and open-mindedness necessary to really understand critical and often complex governmental issues, or the candidates that we’re considering as our leaders, then political “brand awareness” frequently trumps (depressing pun intended) the substance of character or competency.
I’m guilty, too.
I didn’t do anything egregious, illegal or unethical, but a few years ago I reached out to a few friends and neighbors when I was seeking elected office and asked if they would mind writing letters to the editor supporting my campaign. It felt bad then, dirty now, and will be a source of regret forever.
For complex reasons that can be distilled down to a simple truth, yes, our political system is rigged. There are too many incompetent elected leaders enabled by a closed and corrupt system of “I’ll write in support of you and you can write a letter supporting me.” (Over the next two months, cross reference the LTEs in these pages, where one politician enthusiastically endorses another – with a reciprocal message sharing the same tonality running later.)
Writing or reading “letters” cloaked under the pretense of objective impartiality will never be a solution – only a distraction and a detour away from real leadership and effective policy changes.
Become better informed. Get more involved. Suppress the pressures of partisan dogma in favor of thoughtful and engaged critical thinking. A natural repellent to the LTE locusts is civic involvement and understanding.
But it only works if you apply it.
Steve Woods is from away, but fully here now, living in Yarmouth, working in Falmouth, traveling the world, and trying his best. His column appears every other week. He can also be heard each Saturday at 11 a.m. on WLOB-AM 1310.