I have a new idea to increase civic engagement, and it is all about vegan food.
Some background for the non-hipsters out there. So all three of you, listen up. There is a vegan restaurant with locations, unsurprisingly, in Los Angeles, Santa Cruz, and Berkeley, the birthing centers of true hipster culture. The fun (or perhaps failure, depending on your perspective) of this chain is how they name their dishes: Each is a personal, positive, declarative statement. Instead of rice with lentils, you'll order the "I Am Humble." Feel like hummus and pesto? You'll dine on the "I Am Abundant."
If you're a rain-on-your-parade curmudgeon like me, you'll do your best to avoid ordering the dishes by their given names. Instead of confidently telling my server, "I Am Terrific," I prefer to spend three minutes describing the dish, which is, as the name fails to indicate, made of kelp noodles. One of my very favorite dining companions suggested that I should "pick my battles," but the opportunity to avoid announcing, "I Am Liberated" (another kelp noodle dish) is well worth the time I spend boorishly pointing at the menu.
As I glanced around the restaurant on one of my recent visits (and yes, despite my aversion to the names of the dishes, I frequent this establishment), I noticed that notwithstanding my Debbie Downer demeanor, the rest of the patrons really did look humble, filled with abundance, terrific, and liberated. This got me thinking: Could this naming technique be an effective tool on political campaigns?
As hipsters and non-hipsters alike know, civic engagement in the United States is low. Few of us -- vegans, carnivores, or omnivores -- feel particularly invested in our political candidates or elected officials. As a result, far too few of us show up to the polls or mail in ballots. Many of our elected officials, those charged with representing all of their constituents, are elected by a small percentage of those constituents. A representative democracy functions best when our elected officials actually represent us, not just a small portion of us.
So how can we get more people excited about political issues and campaigns? Many political campaigns feel like one long infomercial; politicians tell us why they are "open-hearted," "gentle," "warm," or "fantastic," just to pick a few dishes from the breakfast options.
Perhaps we should take a cue from the vegan establishment. Instead of politicians beating around the bush, maybe they should directly and confidently own their self-promotion and be specific.
In place of mind-numbing political theme periods ("This week is education week" or "July is jobs month"), we could insist candidates give us three reasons why they do, or do not, satisfy a set of dishes. Let's make Mondays during a campaign cycle "Magical Mondays" (named after a veggie burger, of course) and require those seeking our votes to tell us, specifically, what is really magical about them. Expect "Transformed Tuesdays" (a taco dish). Politicians should give us three concrete ways in which they will transform the jurisdiction they seek to represent. Skipping to the end of the week, Fridays will be "Fantastic Fridays" (a cashew crepe). Candidates will give us three reasons why their administration will be fantastic.
If these candidates fail to conjure up any magic, explain a transformation, or convince us that at least some things can be fantastic, well, it is time for them to clear the table.
You get the idea. So until this proposal catches on nationwide, as it no doubt will, I wish you Peace (a sesame bagel).
*This originally post appeared in Pacific Standard Magazine.