By some accounts, our elected officials are doing a terrible job. Approval ratings are abysmal. Corruption is endemic. The state moves from crisis to crisis.

Public disapproval is not limited to one quarter of government. Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell, Gov. David Ige and the Legislature have all received unfavorable ratings from the public.

I believe that their public relations failure is caused in part by a simplistic model of politics that values procedure and neglects rhetoric, the art of persuasion.

In the “School House Rock” model of politics, the job of a politician is to pass bills on Capitol Hill. Successful politics is about the ability to craft and implement policy. But to view politics merely as procedure is to forget that it is also a business of persuasion.

Persuasion is used not only within the halls of government, but also in the public square, the space of public deliberation.

Our politicians must make tough decisions, and they must explain and justify those decisions to the public. Where those decisions are unpopular, the task of a politician is to lead public opinion.

Governor David Ige during veto presser.

Local leaders Gov. David Ige should remember that regular, direct communication between top officials and the public is essential.

Admittedly, our officials are in a tricky position. The advent of social media has swept aside decades of communication strategy. The media landscape has changed, and our local politicians are still fighting the last war.

As media strategies adapt to fit the new landscape, our politicians must remember that they’re not in office solely to make decisions. They’re also responsible for persuasion, and few rhetorical techniques are more powerful than narrative.

Thus, our politicians should focus on telling stories that preserve the memory of our community and envision our shared future.

Preserve Communal Memory

It is not possible to know where we are going without first knowing where we’ve been. For this reason, knowledge of history has always been a prerequisite to statecraft.

The politician is part historian, making sense of the grand sweep of human history and providing context for action in the current moment.

Sometimes, context is necessary to know how to react to a situation.

For instance, longtime activists like Walter Ritte, who previously participated in protests against the military bombing of Kahoolawe, were highly visible at the beginning of the protests at Mauna Kea. The presence of kupuna like Ritte was a clue that the protestors would not go quietly.

Understanding the historical context for the protests should have informed the government response.

The goal of the initial protest was to provoke arrests and galvanize public support. The administration played right into the hands of the protestors, declaring a state of emergency and making arrests before Governor Ige visited the site to meet with organizers. Given the context, it would have been advisable to meet with the protestors prior to reacting with law enforcement.

Other times, history is a source of inspiration in times of crisis. The politician as historian knows that despite appearances, things are not worse than they’ve ever been. In fact, the historical record is replete with groups of humans coming together to solve seemingly impossible problems.

We have the resources necessary to solve our own problems, yet politicians must remind us of our previous successes in order to inspire hope and action.

They could remind us of the Polynesian voyagers who navigated by wave and star to reach distant land. Or they could remind us of our scientific triumph during the Space Race, the stubborn persistence of man to overcome setbacks and failure.

Envision The Future

Of course, it is not enough to remember the past. Politicians must also envision the future.

Too often, our politicians mumble technocratic buzzwords instead. The glorious future is 2% GDP growth and increased urban density. Unfortunately, these terms are meaningless to most voters. They don’t inspire hope. Nobody is sacrificing their life on the altar of transit-oriented development.

Sometimes, politicians tell a good story at the beginning of a project and then revert to technocratic mumbling as the project proceeds.

For instance, former Honolulu Mayor Mufi Hannemann starred in a video ten years ago, explaining how the rail would help busy families improve their quality of life. At the time, rail was fairly popular. But since then, rail supporters have tended to argue with facts and figures. Without strong advocacy, support for rail has declined as the project experienced inevitable delays and cost overruns.

What we need from our politicians is a vision of the future that includes real, flesh and blood humans. They need to tell stories that resonate with the day-to-day experiences of the voters. Otherwise, the public will continue to view politicians as out of touch.

It’s not enough to have great policies. Those policies must be translated into human terms and explained to the public. And that public can’t be reached in the old ways.

New Media, New Challenges

Politicians are working in a new media environment. They can no longer rely on legacy media–newspaper, radio, and television–to transmit their messages.

The public doesn’t tune in anymore. With hundreds of cable channels and the infinite entertainment of the internet, few people are reading print news, and fewer are tuning in for the grand oratory of a State of the State address. In this new world, how do politicians do the hard work of communicating with the public?

First, they’re going to have to take on the task themselves. They cannot continue with the old way of reactive press conferences and annual speeches. They need sophisticated social media strategies to connect with the public and share stories.

The key is regular communication. This communication need not be shallow as tweets or Facebook posts. It can be more thoughtful, like the fireside chats of President Franklin D. Roosevelt or the radio broadcasts of Ronald Reagan before his successful presidential run.

Franklin Roosevelt used his “Fireside Chats” to explain the government’s actions during the Depression. These days such communications would probably be delivered via multimedia presentations or social media, but the point is the same.

Roosevelt used fireside chats to explain his government’s actions during the banking crisis of 1933. He also used them to outline the New Deal and to explain his philosophy of government throughout his time in office. He was hesitant to make the chats too frequent, but still delivered nearly three each year.

Reagan used his radio broadcasts to explain and refine his political platform before he ran for President. Between 1975 and 1979, he gave more than 1,000 daily radio broadcasts. Once in office, he established a weekly radio address. That weekly address continued until last year, when President Trump quietly discontinued the practice.

Of course, a fireside chat or weekly broadcast won’t be carried by radio alone. Today, these speeches would be multimedia presentations distributed via print, radio, television and social media. They might be released as podcasts or YouTube videos.

But the format is less important than the practice: regular communication between our elected officials and the public.

This communication can’t wait until a point of crisis. It needs to be regular, so politicians can preserve communal memory and articulate their vision for the future. They must appear before the public and fulfill more than their executive role. They must be orators also.

This is not too much to ask of politicians. If we settle for less, if we settle for mumbling technocrats and procedural governance, we deserve what we get.

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About the Author

  • Sterling Higa
    Sterling was raised in Nuuanu. He graduated from Roosevelt High School and later earned a master’s degree in education from Harvard University. Sterling now works as a debate coach and lecturer at Hawaii Pacific University. By candlelight, he is finishing his Ph.D. in education at the University of Hawaii Manoa. The author's opinions are his own and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Civil Beat.