The Electrifying Rhetoric of Election Season -- Or, the Trump Effect

Politics is a messy business, but fierce competition can fuel innovation.
August 18, 2015
Gage Skidmore
By Ron Littlefield  |  Senior Fellow
Ron Littlefield, a former mayor of Chattanooga, Tenn., is a senior fellow with the Governing Institute and its lead analyst on the City Accelerator initiative. A city planner by career, he also consults to government through Littlefield Associates.

Nothing sparks civic engagement like an election season. And it's all playing out right now – on a national stage and in key cities across America.

It's tempting to jump into a discussion of the phenomenal rise of Donald Trump and his rapid move from reality TV star into a potential politician. I'm not an admirer, but I have been watching Trump since the days when he was just a dashing aspiring tycoon with better hair. I must confess that I read his first book, “The Art of the Deal,” in the 1980s. I found it to be inspirational from an urban development/city planner's perspective (my first profession). I might even still have that worn copy somewhere in my office. His major projects have made a mark on cities and his ego and optimism can be useful qualities for those who struggle in the trenches of downtown development.

Trump is undoubtedly touching on topics that resonate with a significant segment of the population – and it seems to cross traditional political boundaries. The most interesting parallel I can draw might seem unlikely to some and unfamiliar to others, but the late Gov. George C. Wallace of Alabama had a similar effect on the voting public. Of course, he was a fire-breathing segregationist in his early years, but even then he hit a responsive chord. When he wasn't attacking civil rights, he was waging war on the federal establishment and “pointy headed” intellectuals that were, in his view, leading the country in the wrong direction.

I can still hear him proclaiming “Ahhm sik'n tarred” (I'm sick and tired), and then listing the things with which he vociferously disagreed. He ran for president four times and in the early elections – even as a third-party candidate – performed well in such states as Maryland and Wisconsin. In 1972 he ran as a Democrat and won primaries in North Carolina, Michigan, Maryland, Florida and Tennessee – proving he had a following outside the traditional South. In 1982 he renounced his segregationist past and won a final term as governor of Alabama, carrying every county with a majority black population – in some cases by a two-to-one margin.

The point is that we should never underestimate the power of a showman – and the willingness of the voting public to forgive and forget past sins. And Trump has something that Wallace didn't have – tremendous personal wealth.

Two of our City Accelerator cities are in the middle of important elections seasons – Seattle and Nashville. It would be difficult to find two communities more different in terms of history, population and culture – and yet there are similarities. Both are modern, fast-growing communities that are artistic, inventive and attractive to the creative class. Both have internal tensions that are reflected in recent polling results. And both are in the middle of runoff elections that will determine their political futures for the next four years.

Seattle is electing a new city council. Due to a charter change approved in 2013, for the first time seven of the nine council members will be elected from districts, while two will continue to be elected at-large. In future elections, the mayor and at-large members of the council will be elected to four-year terms and the district council members will be elected to four-year terms, two years later – a staggered approach. A postmortem editorial in the Seattle Times concluded, “Before the switch, in 2013, the City Council had an average age of 61 and didn't look like the city it represented in terms of ethnicity. Initial primary results suggest the next council might have the first female majority since 1999. Several leading candidates are far younger and more racially diverse. Smart, hardworking first-time candidates emerged across the city. Many of them say they wouldn't have run without the switch to districts."

My own city, Chattanooga, went through a similar change from at-large to single-member district elections in 1990 and the effect on diversity of representation was dramatic. Chattanooga went from an all-male, almost all-white council (only one black member in 78 years) to a remarkably diverse group of nine that included – over the course of several subsequent elections – male, female, white, black, Hispanic, Christian (Protestant and Catholic), Jewish, Muslim and openly gay members. In a city as diverse as Seattle, the change should have a similar impact.

Nashville is electing a new mayor and city council. The Metro Council of Nashville Davidson County has 40 members, so elections are always thoroughly engaging. A primary election on Aug. 6 narrowed the field of prospective mayoral candidates from a field of seven to two and a run-off election will take place September 10. The two mayoral hopefuls are about as different as could conceivably be envisioned or selected – even intentionally – by any process. One is a female liberal former member of the metro council who officiated at the first same-sex marriage in Nashville. The other is a male conservative former school board member with a hedge fund background.

Election coverage for council seats in both cities feature similar anti-establishment rhetoric. Running against the establishment never gets old, and while it might involve different issues on a smaller scale, it’s not unlike the bombastic exchanges currently taking place in national debates.

Is all of this really good for us? As one who has been through a few campaigns, I can attest that nothing sharpens the wits or tests endurance and resolve like a good knock-down, drag-out political contest. This environment of competition can fuel the innovation we all wish to see. In spite of protests about “uniting rather than dividing,” I truly believe the spirit and energy of a campaign carries over into the greater community – and it's generally a good thing.

And so, we will survive and perhaps even thrive. We survived George Wallace and we will survive Donald Trump. Seattle and Nashville will come out of their elections with new personalities and new perspectives. The torch will be passed but life will go on.

Politics is a messy business, but it keeps us in a constant state of revolution, transformation and change through application of the desired forces of innovation and civic engagement – the very elements we seek to amplify through City Accelerator. And if things don't go right in this election, there is always another one just around the corner. 

Be part of the campaign for civic innovation at the City Accelerator, presented by Citi Foundation.