I’m a reasonably responsible voter. I vote pretty much every year, including off-years, and I do my best to educate myself on the issues. I’m lucky to be surrounded by folks who are extremely engaged, and I often “consult” with them on issues or candidates I don’t know well. Sadly, “consult” often means simply voting the way my friends tell me to vote.
Four years ago, disturbed by the direction our country was moving, I took a hard look in the mirror about my own level of civic engagement. Because I was already spending a good amount of my professional time working on national issues, I decided to focus my personal time on local issues. It was an easy decision, because I quickly realized how ignorant I was about what was going on in my own neighborhood, much less the city of San Francisco.
I started attending local meetings (which bear a shocking resemblance to the meetings on Parks and Recreation) and reading up on local issues. I met my Supervisor, whom I had voted for, but whom I had known nothing about. I learned that San Francisco has a $13 billion (!) budget, and that roughly half of this money comes from self-supporting services, such as public transportation (although this has changed dramatically, thanks to the pandemic). It seems like I should have known all this stuff before happily asserting my civic rights, year-after-year, but I was happy to finally start correcting this.
Flash forward to today’s election. About a month ago, I looked at my ballot, and I was troubled to discover that I was no better equipped to make decisions this year than I was in any other year.
For example, there were seven candidates running for Supervisor in my district. I tried to read up on all of them, which helped me narrow the field to three, but didn’t help me beyond that. San Francisco has ranked choice voting, which meant that I could vote for all three (which I did), but it didn’t help me with the order. I ended up voting for the person endorsed by the current Supervisor. I happened to run into her at a neighborhood restaurant (after already voting for her), and she left a good impression, but good impressions — while important — don’t seem like the best criteria for making these kinds of decisions.
In animation, there’s this concept known as the “uncanny valley.” When we see cartoonish versions of people, we are untroubled. We know they are meant to be representative, not realistic depictions of human beings, and we can appreciate them as such. We also react well to perfectly realistic depictions. However, we find depictions that seem almost human-like to be creepy, even revolting. (Think The Polar Express.)
I feel like there’s also an uncanny valley when it comes to assessing leadership. Federal and perhaps even state-level officials are the equivalent to the cartoonish representations of people. There’s no way for us to really know them, so we form opinions based on things that may not actually say much about whether or not they would make competent leaders, such as their opinions on various issues or how likable they seem to be.
On the other side of the spectrum, there are the leaders we actually know — our bosses, for example. We form our opinions of their leadership based on working with them, which seems like an appropriate way to make these kinds of assessments.
How, then, should we judge folks running for Supervisor or our local School Boards? These are folks I might run into at a local coffee shop and could actually have a conversation with if I have concerns or questions. Why is it so hard for me to assess who might be good for these positions? I think it’s because they fall into this uncanny valley of leadership, where they seem accessible, and yet there are aspects of them that seem fundamentally unknowable, and that feels unsettling.