How does the Legislature do its work? How different is Hawaii politically and culturally from the rest of the U.S.? Why does Hawaii have low voter turnout?
When it comes to understanding its own politics, Hawaii is a knowledge desert. According to any decent standard of evidence, we know squadoosh about this place.
It’s sad that a place so concerned with history knows so little about its own political history, a place so concerned with culture knows so little about its own political culture.
Here is what’s needed in order for people to get a rich, accurate picture of politics in Hawaii.
• A knowledge base of the history and culture of Hawaii that puts politics in context.
• A deep understanding of everyday life in Hawaii.
• Strong links between those doing that kind of inquiry and journalists who can use this information.
Right now, Hawaii lacks all of these.
They are wonderful books, classics. By now, though, these books should be nested in a newer body of knowledge. They should be sources of comparison — then versus now.
As for Hawaii’s voter turnout, lots of teeth gnashing, lots of theories about why this state has moved from among the highest turnout state to the lowest, but no one has looked closely at the reasons.
University of Hawaii scholars have fallen short. (That includes me since I worked there for over 40 years and never took on these tasks.)
The same is even more true when it comes to understanding Hawaii’s political culture. You would think that a place that talks so much about local culture, sense of place, and aloha would be filled with research on, say, neighborhood culture, or the effect of family on the ways people think about their world.
Nope, what we get instead is simplistic ethnic lumping at election time: Filipinos vote this way, Japanese vote that way, as if that explains all that needs explaining.
Research elsewhere has shown that neighborhoods have an enormous and lingering impact on people’s lives and beliefs. It’s called “the neighborhood effect.”
Yet in Hawaii, where the neighborhood you are from is so often a part of your identity, no one has taken a close look at the neighborhood effect.
How do we get a broader and deeper knowledge base?
It is not the job of journalists. Their everyday work pressures require them to concentrate on the here and now and to rely on others to create this foundation of broader knowledge.
But it is a journalist’s job to use such information. What the media scholar John Wihbey calls “knowledge-based journalism” — the ability to go deep and wide — needs people who create this broader knowledge.
Academics are not the only people who can do this, but they are about the only ones who get paid to do this. But University of Hawaii scholars have fallen short. (That includes me since I worked there for over 40 years and never took on these tasks.)
UH has produced a great amount of good social science research about Hawaii, but it tends to be small in scale.
Former UH economist Sumner LaCroix’s new book on the economic history of Hawaii is a step in the right direction.
Thanks mostly to the verve and ingenuity of faculty in UH Manoa’s School of Hawaiian Knowledge, we have learned an enormous number of perspective-changing things about Hawaii. But not much about modern, contemporary Hawaii.
Try to find a book on the evolution of Honolulu as a city.
Studying the Legislature requires a kind of digging no one has ever done here.
People, me included, say scratch-the-surface things about the Legislature’s norms, which are key to understanding how this body works. Doing more would require a lot of interviews, close observations and analyses of voting records.
Overall there is an enormous amount of information about the Legislature waiting to be mined. As Alexander Hertel-Fernandez showed in his recent study of the effect of the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council on state legislators, this requires the time to painstakingly grub around and ingenious methods to analyze and present it.
But when it comes to inquiry, our Legislature remains as opaque as Honolulu rail’s completion date. And that is also the case regarding the effect of money on our legislators. We typically oversimplify money-politics links.