Posted by: cantmisssd | December 13, 2010

People talking

Ended up in a fascinating twitter discussion last week about the nature of the budget debate around town. It helped focus a number of my thoughts on what is and isn’t happening and why.

I said a bit recently about Carl DeMaio’s proposed cuts to the city’s arts grant program, and that’s really my only piece on it at this point. The debate continues to rage all over the place though, with nearly anyone with a finger in the San Diego arts community weighing in and KPBS piling on to the continuing VoSD coverage. As a number of folks have pointed out in and around the discussion, it’s a whole lot of chatter about a minor piece of a sweeping budget proposal that doesn’t inherently carry any weight or influence on the eventual budget. Which highlights the fascinating angle involved- why *does* this matter so much to people when really, it doesn’t matter all that much?

The easy answer is, like I said last week, people love to kvetch about this topic. But it also highlights one of the first lessons of political school- nobody ever stops forming their opinions, and a vacuum gets filled. The Prop D campaign, for all the many angles involved, boiled down to the Yes side pitching a pragmatic solution and the No side responding with an ideological objection. The ideological objection resonated, was much easier for the general public to internalize and extrapolate, and now provides the framework for a broad messaging effort against the notion of a government that can be trusted to work.

So there was an involved reaction from a Mayor spox essentially saying that reacting four months before the budget is due to a proposal that has no inherent weight, and Carl DeMaio doesn’t really matter all that much. Fair enough. But clearly, these conversations are happening with or without the participation of all the relevant players. And in that space, those who do participate have increasing influence and relevance when it comes to the substance of budget wrangling.

One of the interesting aspects of online networking and debate is that it’s easier to watch these discussions develop and evolve over time. Where once these conversations would happen informally and in person, they now increasingly happen on Twitter, in comment sections, on Facebook, wherever. And these tools have the capacity to drive issues both in direction and visibility because of the building record that in-person conversation lacks. Which allows for influence to be largely relative- the people who show up become the contenders for influence, regardless of their objective merits for such influence.

I understand that there’s a long history in San Diego of not being political about politics. And I’m certainly conscious that there are long-standing power structures and organized bases of influence that don’t wave flags in public, online arenas. But the notion of major business just kinda happening outside of significant public input and oversight is slowly fading, and there’s mounting momentum for constructing a new, pseudo-outsider base of political power. It’s easy- and often proper- to skim over this chatter. Most of it isn’t more than chatter for its own sake. But in the absence of real engagement and meaningful avenues for education and participation, chatter for its own sake has a way of turning into prevailing wisdom.

There’s an existential conversation happening in San Diego about what government will be and how the city is functioning. And in these discussions, many supposed city leaders are startlingly absent. If the city’s political leaders, advocacy organizations, or political parties want to lead, they have to first participate. And not to wield influence by being reactionary and trying to refute what came before, but by being a better leader. Setting a better example. Demonstrating that the people who are half-assing it are, in fact, not serious. Without making the comparison available to the public, the distinction can’t be made.

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