Two kinds of politics befoul our lives in Hawaii. Call one “vicious” and the other “vacuous.”

A double whammy. Vicious is way too much in your face. Vacuous sucks the political life out of you. Viciousness is more national. Vacuity is Hawaii’s very own.

Viciousness is what national politics is all about right now. The 2020 presidential campaign will make this viciousness even worse.

Vacuous politics gets far less attention because it is hidden in plain sight, especially in Hawaii where it all too quietly and ineffectively drives our state and local political process.

If we had to choose, vicious politics is far more threatening and serious. But don’t choose. It’s not a contest.

And with the Hawaii Legislature about to begin, it’s really timely to consider what vacuity is all about because the Legislature is at the center.

Elephant and Donkey going toe to toe on Election Day in the Ring of Public Opinion. Boxing ring in stadium is decorated with election bunting. Art on easily edited layers. Download also includes a large high-res jpeg.

Let’s start with a review of vicious politics. Oy, so depressing. (You can find an excellent comprehensive and easy to read summary here.)

The country is now deeply polarized socially and politically. The social differences reinforce the political ones. Everything has become political, from who your neighbors are, whom you want your kids to marry, to your beliefs about God.

Race is the predominant separator. The GOP is a white person’s party while the Democrats are increasingly multiracial.

This has fostered identity politics on both sides. Democrats tend to celebrate identity politics. Conservatives, at least on the surface, criticize it. But in fact white identity has become a much more integral part of the Republican Party.

Politics has become about defeating your opponents whose morality you no longer trust.

So those are the seeds that have brought us to a tribal politics based on disgust for the other side even to the point of considering the use of violence against your opponents.

Vicious politics makes you want to head for the hills and live in a cave so isolated that, come hibernation, even the grizzlies can’t find it.

But you don’t escape because your anger and disgust keep drawing you in to fight against your morally disgusting and untrustworthy opponents.

Vicious politics keeps you awake at night. Vacuous politics puts you to sleep.

Vacuous politics isn’t about passion at all. It’s about indifference. It’s inexpressive, inscrutable and opaque.

Vacuous politics dulls your senses, and lowers your expectations: Find a cave? What for? Things are okay. Kinda. Anyway, it’s not going to change.

Vacuous politics deadens political life. It stifles political thinking and makes it exceptionally difficult to know what’s going on. And it reduces people’s sense that things can be better.

Which neatly describes Hawaii.

In Hawaii there are at least three manifestations of this stifling political vacuity: the opaqueness of the state’s Legislature, the total lack of an effective political opposition, and the bottom-of-the-barrel voter turnout.

You can say what you want about political viciousness, but at least we know where our national politicians stand. Or to put it in a political-sciency way, there are plenty of cues to guide our political knowledge.

You can lecture and shame non-voters if you want, but the real deal is that with little political foment and so many unopposed or done-deal elections, why bother?

Cues? Good luck with that. That’s not the way state politics works here.

Our Legislature is almost entirely one-party Democratic. Supposedly there are many factions among the legislators.

I say “supposedly” because we know hardly anything about them. They don’t appear to be based on ideological differences, as they have been in other state legislatures, but who knows?

And legislators don’t like to talk publicly about their differences. Last session, a legislator spilled the beans about the hardball tactics one of his Democratic colleagues had used.

You’d think it was 1950 and someone leaked the secret formula for the hydrogen bomb.

Instead of clarity citizens get a big black box turning out 50 non-sexual shades of gray.

The state’s Republicans are no help. There are far too few Republican legislators to hold Democrats’ feet to the fire or to report on what’s going on in a way that makes a difference.

The GOP’s only sentient, speaking-to-the-public human is Rep. Gene Ward who does okay with that. But just one person?

This all moves legislative politics to a subterranean level. To paraphrase Dave Shapiro in his column for the Honolulu Star-Advertiser, for our state legislative leaders politics is the art of preventing people from taking part in affairs that concern them.

Which in fact is pretty much where Hawaii politics is generally. Cloudiness has become a habit, as stable a part of Hawaii’s culture as shopping at Costco.

Out of sight becomes out of mind, and with that political interest dissolves. We know very little about why Hawaii, which used to have one of the highest voter turnouts in the nation, now has the lowest, but what we do know is that high turnout has a lot to do with contested elections, which are rarer here than a Palolo street without potholes.

You can lecture and shame non-voters if you want, but the real deal is that with little political foment and so many unopposed or done-deal elections, why bother?

So meaningful politics disappears from our radar here. We are angry and cynical about state and local politics but no longer have the confidence or political interest to think we can do anything about it.

There is no quick fix for this double whammy. Anyone who claims to have a formula is either naïve or phony. But I can offer you a word that should guide your aspirations.

The word is “vitality.” A vital politics threads the needle between viciousness and vacuity.

Borrowing the best from viciousness, a politics with vitality has passion, clarity, mobilization and commitment. It encourages a citizenry committed to politics.

Borrowing the best from the vacuous, political vitality recognizes that this commitment can go too far, especially when it’s used to define human goodness.

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