TAMPA, Fla. (RNS) Two forces of nature are bearing down on Tampa this week.
One, Tropical Storm Isaac, is thought likely to reach the Gulf Coast as a hurricane. The other, the Republican National Convention, is bringing 50,000 Republicans to nominate a president and vice president, to adopt a campaign platform, and to make the usual quadrennial noise.
Both forces of nature seemed to be long on news coverage but short on actual impact. Residents here don't get alarmed by a Category 1 hurricane. And the latest poll of voters suggests Americans are tired of both parties, both presidential candidates and both engines of invective.
At the expense of effective governance, the Out party has devoted its energy to regaining the White House. The In party has walked softly and carried a small stick to avoid losing the presidency.
Weary citizens have seen too many attack ads, too many super PACs spending too much money to tilt the election to their self-interest. They have heard too many empty speeches and meaningless slogans, too many outright lies being repeated in an eerie echo of Goebbels' propaganda technique.
In the name of saving the nation from what they perceive as its domestic enemies, politicians have managed to debase the political process and to numb citizens to what might be at stake. At a pivotal point in its history, the nation is portrayed as a tawdry stew of shady emotions like greed, racism and fear. Instead of rallying citizens to meaningful values, politicians try to manipulate voters by fanning those emotional flames.
In three days here, I didn't encounter a single person who was excited about having the Republican convention in town or interested in its outcomes, other than traffic snarls. Even longtime Republicans rolled their eyes. The gap between political class and citizenry seemed wide.
At Tampa International Airport, arriving politicians strode regally past taxpayers, ears glued to cell phones, their paths cleared by young men looking stern. I recognized at least one pundit taking her own regal walk.
What happens when citizens don't see honesty or concern in their elected officials, and when politicians treat citizens as votes to be gained through deception and then to be ignored?
When this happens in the real world, people drift away. When churches offer nothing but grand Sunday shows, people with real needs seek other avenues to faith. When corporations reset compensation plans to reward only top executives, employees cease to be loyal, they work less and sabotage more. When classroom teachers realize bureaucrats see them as overpaid problems, many stop making the extra effort that effective education requires. In the tech world, in-demand engineers float freely from employer to employer, hired guns loyal only to their spending desires.
Politicians get away with anti-constituent behavior because citizens can't drift away. If they stop voting, raging minorities seize power. If they look to the other party, they don't see anything better. If they take to the streets, police forces are now firing at will.
So they turn off the information flow, allow ads filled with lies to shape their emotions, and then cast ballots that are distracted, not informed. Politics becomes the art of managing distractions.
The one bright light I saw in Tampa was that many citizens don't seem to be buying the script. It seems people aren't as easily manipulated as politicians seem to expect.
(Tom Ehrich is a writer, church consultant and Episcopal priest based in New York. He is the author of "Just Wondering, Jesus" and founder of the Church Wellness Project. His website is www.morningwalkmedia.com. Follow Tom on Twitter @tomehrich.)