Neal Milner: To See What's Wrong With Our Politics, Consider Professional Wrestling - Honolulu Civil Beat


About the Author

Neal Milner

Neal Milner is a former political science professor at the University of Hawaii where he taught for 40 years. He is a political analyst for KITV and is a regular contributor to Hawaii Public Radio's "The Conversation." His most recent book is The Gift of Underpants. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views.


People in Hawaii have a crippling social disease. It’s called Unimaginative Politics Syndrome.

It’s curable, though the cure is a tough one because it is the public, not the politicians, who will have to take the strong medicine.

I’m doing two columns about this. This first one is about the disease. The next will be about the cure.

Unimaginative Politics Syndrome is Hawaii’s version of a national problem that Hahrie Han and her colleagues describe this way in their new book: “In twenty-first-century America, the link between democratic participation and power seems broken.”

For Hawaii, the cure requires breaking up a dysfunctional process whereby citizen complaints make things worse rather than making them better.

Complaints make it more likely that the processes we complain about will continue. It’s a repetitive response, like a tic, and like a tic it is distracting and useless.

To understand the problem, compare our lame exercising of democracy in Hawaii with The Lady with the Purse.

The Lady with the Purse sat ringside at every professional wrestling match at the old South Side Armory in 1950s Milwaukee, where wrestling was huge. She carried a grandma handbag big enough to hold a six-pack of Schlitz.

You could hurt someone with that thing. Which is what she tried to do. Whenever one of the villain wrestlers like The Mighty Atlas or Dick the Bruiser got near her seat or, better yet, fell out of the ring into her lap, she’d go after him with that lethal cudgel while screaming and yelling, beside herself with indignation.

Just like we do here when complaining about our political leadership — beside ourselves with indignation, wanting to put a stop to it.

But the Lady with the Purse was not trying to disrupt the matches. She was there to enhance them. That was her gig.

Pro wrestling was scripted. (Not as far as my grandpa was concerned, but that’s another story.) Wrestling was performance art before performance art became cool, or nuanced or multi-textured. Or whatever the heck it is.

The Purse Lady was part of the script. She helped the show go on as always.

Our anger about Hawaii’s politics is different. It’s real, not fake. Unfortunately, though, unlike the Purse Lady’s feigned anger, our sincere anger does not disrupt the ritual. It enhances it, becoming part of the ritual itself.

Waimanalo resident Mark Hartsock wears a Hawaiian flag while standing in a long line to vote in the 2020 General Election near Honolulu Hale.
Voting is a limited weapon, but there are other ways to affect political outcomes. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Complaining about the unions, corrupt politicians, the political machine, one-party dominance, incumbency, bureaucracy, secrecy, gut-and-replace. The same list of villains every time.

I’m not saying that’s a bad list. I’m saying that by now the list-making process has become as scripted and predictable as wrestling.

After all these years, the same old citizen complaints have become as much a part of the political process as the Legislature’s late night, end-of-session shenanigans and horribly missed deadlines.

Cementing the process, keeping the half-baked but stubborn rituals of Hawaii’s politics alive, it’s who we have become. Blowing hot air in the name of accountability.

We fail because here the culture of public complaint about politics is so repetitive, so unimaginative and so full of angry apathy, that it ends up reinforcing the way politics gets done.

This pattern is carved in stone. We complain about the process but act in ways that keeps the very same process alive. People get more cynical but continue to depend on the same process that makes you crazy in the first place.

It’s a tic rather than a response. Don’t you get tired of saying these same things when nothing happens as a result?

We congratulate ourselves for being responsible citizens because it’s those politicians’ fault that things don’t change. “Those damn politicians.” Not our fault because we told them what to do but they do not do it.

Sure, I know that the conventional explanation puts the blame on the politicians because “they never change.” But neither do we citizens.

It’s a fatally flawed, never-changing battle between intractability and lack of political imagination.

In the next column, I’ll discuss some situations where ordinary people have overcome this inertia and have come together to take powerful action that helps realize the vision of the world they want.

Two of them involve issues that Hawaii has not handled well — minimum wage and universal pre-kindergarten.

For now, consider these seven orientation points:

First, continuing with our old ways will make things worse.

Second, voting is a very limited weapon.

Third, it’s not so much about generating good ideas. There are lots of good ideas. What Hawaii lacks is processes that can make them happen.

Fourth, the most important processes are informal and unconventional.

Fifth, not surprisingly, politically marginalized people are politically imaginative because they learned long ago that conventional ways of “gaining access” do not work for them. We can learn a lot from them, as I’ll show next time.

Sixth, I’d bet the proceeds from an illegal vacation rental that this is not the way you think about politics.

Seventh, details next time, but all of them come down to this: As your mother used to tell you when you whined about doing the dishes, you need to shut up and get to work.

Complaining is not work, cynicism is not work, even creating a list of good ideas is not work.

You are doing the same things you have been doing because you know it should be effective because it is so darn right?

Go to your room.


Read this next:

Chad Blair: How Water In Hawaii Became A Matter Of Public Trust


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About the Author

Neal Milner

Neal Milner is a former political science professor at the University of Hawaii where he taught for 40 years. He is a political analyst for KITV and is a regular contributor to Hawaii Public Radio's "The Conversation." His most recent book is The Gift of Underpants. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views.


Latest Comments (0)

Can wait until the next installment.  

wailani1961 · 2 weeks ago

It’s true that we have largely become a nation of social media junkie whiners. However, it’s equally true that the average Joe and Jane in Hawaii are just struggling to make ends meet (yes, they’ve got us just where they want us). All that said, I can get positive things done. I know how to do it and am doing it. However, I’m still constrained by the need to earn a living and not able to effect large-scale systemic change. Neal’s points are, for the most part, spot on. I’m looking forward to part II. Show us the way, Neal!

paulo · 2 weeks ago

I love the effort being made to change the direction we are heading. It seems to me that the analysis is right on and I am glued to the computer to find out what is next by way of solutions. Thanks for this Neal. However, I am not optimistic. We have  painted ourselves into a corner in which anything we want to do to improve will require someone to give up something, and the longer we’ve existed as a country and as a state, the more powerful those who must give in have become. They are simply unwilling to have the government tell them that that they have to make less or pay more. A reasonable beginning would be term limits and ending Citizens United, and what are the chances of that? Now I’m depressed.

daviddinner · 2 weeks ago

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