Column: Fair weather politics

By Craig Colbrook

While I’m crazy-go-nuts for fairs and just as enthusiastic for politics, I’m always left a little cold when the two mix. I don’t mind some politician glad-handing farmers and kissing babies, or some activist harassing his fellow voters about some issue or another. But I do mind the fact that these interactions are almost always empty, or even worse, dishonest.

I guess I just don’t believe the average fair-goer can stop what they’re doing long enough to properly consider the candidate, party, or issue that’s being presented. That’s not lack of faith in the voters – that’s lack of faith in the politics. With all the food, exhibits, rides, games and live music from middle-aged white guys who only ever learned to play Bachman-Turner Overdrive covers, it doesn’t seem like politics are able to break through the white noise of a fair. I can only speak from personal experience, but I passed by a few political signs at the Illinois State Fair in 2004 and all I could think was, “Obama? You can’t deep fry that and put it on a stick. Why are they wasting my time?”

And I was actually interning for him at the time.

But I understand why politicians want to go to a fair – it just looks too good politically. Hell, I want politicians to go to fairs, as it’s sometimes the only way we can give them a good thumping when they misbehave. Besides, it was Quad Day that got me into politics, so if these events can get people involved, good for them. And if nothing else, it’s useful for someone like Jim Oberweis, who has no chance of winning but have already spent all that money and have to get rid of those stickers somehow.

I just worry that sometimes these fair-weather politics distort how things really are. After all, Howard Dean was pretty good at this stuff, right down to having a booth at the Urbana Farmer’s Market, and his much-lauded grassroots appeal lead him to a crushing, decisive victory in exactly one primary. Last week, Gov. Blagojevich had a pretty impressive display of support at the State Fair, but all I ever hear is how weak he is, how his Democratic base is abandoning him and blah-bibbity-blah-blah-blah.

So, I think a lot of this fair support is a mile wide but an inch deep. I base this on my own experience working for campaigns, but also on some of the people I talked to at this year’s State Fair. One man wearing a Blagojevich sticker was unable to explain why he was supporting the governor, besides pointing out that there really wasn’t any one else worth thinking about in the race. That’s a good point, as the current Republican challengers have to car pool in the short bus to campaign events, but the State Fair doesn’t seem like the best locale to research candidates.

Later in the day, my friend Bethany spotted a girl wearing a Green Day “American Idiot” t-shirt and an Oberweis sticker. Bethany asked the girl if she knew Oberweis basically made up statistics to make people afraid of immigrants (having known me for more than 15 years, Beth has been well-indoctrinated with liberal talking points). The girl responded with little more than confusion.

It seems to me, then, that fair support is completely dependent on which candidate gets to the fair first. This shouldn’t be surprising; there’s just not much substantive debate to be had about a sticker with a guy’s name on it, especially when one kid wants seven stickers. But, in a lot of cases, maybe too many cases, these community events are the only direct interaction the politicians have with the voters. I’m forced to wonder if it’s safe for them to get such a distorted view.

Craig Colbrook is a senior in communications and College Democrats vice president. His columns appear every Friday. He can be reached at [email protected]