(RNS) You can tell from its menu whether a restaurant expects to serve tourists, locals or regulars.
At a tourist-centered eatery like those near Times Square, the menu typically is huge: many pages, difficult to scan, sometimes difficult even to hold. There's something for everyone and it's designed to please customers who are strangers.
A restaurant catering to locals will have a much leaner menu, maybe just four or five items in each category. They will all be of a certain type — no words like “Asian fusion” to disguise lack of focus. If the joint is Korean, it will serve Korean.
A third and much rarer type is the restaurant that offers just one multi-course meal each night. Regulars go expecting to be served the chef's whim of the day, not handed a long menu.
When customers are strangers, the owner must imagine what will please a patchwork of German tourists, Chinese tourists, families from Iowa, young techies on the prowl, and marketers in town for a convention.
The better an owner knows the customers, the more focused the menu can be. If not the actual customer, at least the type of person who will come in.
Voting isn't all that different. When politics is local, candidates tend to know their people or at least know their interests, worries and hopes. This is the level at which democracy tends to work best. Leaders know their people, people know their leaders, and known interests are at stake.
As the level of abstraction rises, personal awareness diminishes, and voters tend to be encountered through polls and stereotypes. Candidates get known through news coverage and advertising.
Soon you have our current political snarl, which resembles the guesswork of a huge tourist menu more than any true awareness of our people and their needs. Candidates truly are offering “something for everyone.”
At that point, decor matters more than food, ambience more than nutrition. Clever descriptions replace actual experience. Candidates try to besmirch their opponents without revealing the least bit of themselves.
By the time the food arrives, or the winning candidate takes office, the meal being served is a surprise. “Well, I guess I ordered this dish, but I had no idea what I was getting.”
Democracy sputters at this level. The problem is that most of us are strangers voting for strangers, not citizens voting for their communities. Campaigning speaks to fears more than actual interests. People are lumped into categories — like the “black vote” or the “women's vote” — that have no foundation in reality. Large donors and major media writers gain undue influence over what candidates and people think they know.
That's why I was pleased when a pastor told me he is determined to help his large and diverse flock engage in actual discussion about 2012 politics. With the aid of a provocative political writer, he wants his folks to step beyond the convenient labels national politicians have splashed on them, and engage each other as neighbors, individuals, citizens, with nuanced interests and diverse views.
I think more congregations ought to be doing this. So should other associations. Political machinery grounded in deceptions and stereotypes isn't likely to change. It's up to us to make democracy work better.
(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.)