“Stump Speaking” by George Caleb Bingham, 1853u201354. (Image: Wikipedia)

Last week, I found out how much feedback a writer can get when directing pointed questions at a local politician. Though the candidate himself unsurprisingly ignored my column, I heard back from many readers.

As expected, the email and social media responses were far-ranging, from “Spot on!” to “You suck” and just about everything in between. Normally, I don’t pay too much attention to article opinions, but some of them caught my eye last week. Of all the comments, though, the most perplexing ones were of the “How dare you!” variety, suggesting I was out of bounds for drawing attention to what could be viewed as an unflattering issue.

One particular word from a snappy response really jumped off the screen at me: irresponsible. To that reader, it was irresponsible of me to pen an open letter to a political candidate. “Say what?” I wondered. How on earth is it irresponsible to ask tough questions of candidates who want to write and vote on legislation that is going to impact our lives and country? If anything, that’s exactly what we as citizens are supposed to do.

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Think about it. In any political race, campaigns will push out nothing but pretty pictures, friendly soundbites and positive buzzwords about themselves and their candidacies. Aside from a handful of debates or forums where contestants are forced to address specific queries in front of the public, most races come down to which candidate can out-market the other. Given this dialogue deficit, it falls upon the shoulders of voters to figure out ways to draw additional answers out of politicians.

With this in mind, the truly irresponsible thing to do would be to think, “Well, these TV commercials sure are handsome. I guess that’s the whole story.” Actually, that would be naïve. Irresponsible would be for a voter to have a hunch that there are more stones to turn over but be too lazy or too timid to see what’s under them.

It’s not much fun to rock the boat. It’s not much fun to know your words will draw the ire of a large number of friends. And it’s not much fun to know that you might very well be putting a bull’s-eye on your own back for asking unpleasant questions that thousands of eyeballs will read.

However, the responsible thing to do is ask those questions. When there are legitimate concerns that a candidate is choosing convenience over convictions, the responsible thing to do is ask them where they really stand. When inconsistencies emerge about a candidate’s work history, the responsible thing to do is ask that individual about those discrepancies. When one of the largest public works projects in the region remains unfunded, the responsible thing to do is ask questions about it.

Chattanooga isn’t that big of a place. Here, the “six degrees of Kevin Bacon”are whittled down to two degrees, tops. Many of us know each other or know of each other, so it’s really easy to offend-and there are toes everywhere waiting to be stepped on.

But that doesn’t mean we should sacrifice civic interests to hypercongeniality. Rather, we should take advantage of the intimacy of our community to find effective ways to scrutinize the men and women who want to represent us in various offices. So long as this mission is pursued civilly, our closeness is a great public asset.

Candidates don’t throw their hat in the ring for political office without knowing full well they’ll be put under the microscope. They’re adults and should be able to handle the heat. It’s our responsibility as citizens to figure out who they really are, understand why they’re running for office and try to get a picture of what they plan to do when elected or re-elected.

The most responsible thing we can do is ask hard questions. It’s up to the candidates, though, if they want to answer them.

David Allen Martin is a civic engagement advocate who teaches United States history at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. You should follow him on Twitter if you enjoy completely random posts. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.

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