Columns » Autumn Tolbert

A fresh start

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For much of my adult life, I've tried to eat black-eyed peas and greens every New Year's Day, worrying that if I didn't, the year would be just awful. I've made resolutions. I've sworn off fast food. I've pledged to go to the gym three times a week. Out with the old. In with the new. It never works. This year, after getting sick during a post-Christmas trip to Branson, I stayed home while the rest of my family participated in New Year festivities with extended family. Instead of fretting over missed traditions, I napped and ate frozen pizza. You know what? It felt great.

Sometimes traditions do more harm than good. Sometimes trying to get a new start puts us back in the same old rut. As we enter 2018, I have a list of things we collectively need to leave behind in 2017. At the top of the list is the way we fall for the same old tired promise from politicians that they are the only person for the job and that we just cannot move forward without his or her (usually his) guidance. This attitude has led to the smug paternalism that is prevalent in our politics today.

When I was young, a beloved aunt and uncle often took me to the state Capitol during my summer visits to Little Rock. It was all so fancy, with the marble staircases and gold letterboxes and bronze doors. It was a place of wisdom and knowledge. So I thought. Either way, like many kids, I'm sure, each visit had me more and more convinced that only the smartest and most benevolent walked through those doors as public servants.

As an adult, I've found that those are certainly not the traits that get most people to the our capitol or any capitol, for that matter. Confidence. Bravado. Fundraising. Self-importance. Dunning-Kruger Effect. These all seem to pave the way for too many politicians these days. "Elect me," they say. "I can solve your problems." But that just is not the case.

I could start naming men and women I know who would do a wonderful job in the state Legislature and run out of column space before I really got started. Sure, politicians need new ideas and plans, but somewhere we lost the truth that the men and women in the Legislature or in Congress are really just ordinary people who represent our best interests while we work and take care of our families. Somehow, many of our politicians have come to believe that by merely being politicians, they possess an inherent wisdom that their constituents do not. This is glaringly obvious if you've ever been on the receiving end of a form letter from U.S. Rep. Steve Womack or U.S. Sen. Tom Cotton after expressing a concern about healthcare, net neutrality or tax reform. It's something I've heard over and over from the women in my district who tried to talk to state Rep. Charlie Collins (R-Fayetteville) about guns on campus. Smug paternalism. And we stood by and let it get this way.

This year, I'm through writing letters and making phone calls to people who don't give a flip about what I have to say. A phone call on behalf of a candidate to a voter will go a lot further than another call to a congressional staffer. There is no convincing Womack or Cotton, or Collins for that matter, that any way but their way is worth pursuing. Instead, I'll spend my energy on helping men and women candidates, especially women candidates, get elected who are running not because they feel like they have all the answers but because they want to find the best path forward for and with their communities. Candidates who, instead of talking at us, talk to us. Instead of hiding behind telephone town halls, NRA-funded studies and meet and greets only accessible by ferry boats, they come home to their district every chance they get and really listen to the people they claim to represent.

2018 is a new start. We have a chance for a clean slate in many districts. We can end the ridiculous tradition of "politician knows best." We can fill our city halls and legislatures with men and women who mean it when they say they want to help. Men and women who, when faced with a viewpoint that is not their own, respond with respect instead of an outright dismissal or ridicule. And if all of this works, next year, I will again abandon my traditions on New Year's Day and, instead of black-eyed peas and greens, I may just treat myself to a movie and some nachos.

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