This November marks more than just the beginning of the holiday season; it is also the beginning of the 2012 election season. Politics are always one of the toughest subjects firefighters can engage in conversation about. Just like everyone else, we love to talk politics with the people who agree with us and not so much with people who don’t. A brilliant Colorado firefighter commented during a discussion about the upcoming elections that most firefighters he knows are Democrats at work and Republicans at home. Aside from being hysterically funny, it’s often true. And, depending on one’s station or department, it could be the opposite: You could be a Republican at work and a Democrat at home. During the same conversation, another firefighter mentioned that that type of cognitive dissonance—the feeling of uncomfortable tension that comes from holding two conflicting thoughts in our mind at the same time—can be very unhealthy.
But that dissonance is a reality for many firefighters. Although we may strongly support some things that are held by a party, association, or particular politician, we rarely support everything. The Democratic Party, for example, traditionally is thought to represent support of labor and unions, pro-choice, and bigger government. The Republican Party traditionally is associated with right to work, pro-life, and smaller government. Given these various positions, a firefighter might be committed to the union cause but, because of religious upbringing, strongly pro-life. Another firefighter could be a strong right-to-work supporter and a strong pro-choice supporter. So, as we approach the election season, it is important to recognize that every individual has a right to his own opinion and that every individual’s opinion matters and should be respected.
The difficulty arises when our own values conflict with the expressed values of the candidates or the party we support or which our fellow firefighters would like us to support. For example, the abortion issue for many religious firefighters is extremely important, and those firefighters cannot in good conscience ever endorse an organization or candidate who supports the pro-choice stance. This often puts them at direct odds in the firehouse with firefighters who feel they need to support these pro-choice candidates because they may have expressed a willingness to support firefighter causes. So to avoid the conflict in the firehouse, it is not uncommon for us to be one thing at work and another at home.
But much of that is changing. There is a new honesty, a new willingness to engage in rhetoric and to stand independently from the crowd. In many instances, the individual is considered an outsider because he is true to his personal values. We’re seeing it more and more, especially in our new firefighters, and this is a very good thing. These boldly self-confident firefighters recognize that no one else needs to be wrong for them to be right.
This refreshing integrity comes from the training they are receiving either from the military or their parents, where it is no longer acceptable for them to be focused on short-term goals but rather they prefer to be focused on the future. They are always looking at taking the next hill, asking what the next objective is, rather than settling on what needs to get done today to get by. It is more important to many of our younger firefighters that they’re creating a sustainable and better future rather than winning a short-term battle today. That is a very different mindset than that of a firefighter who was raised in the ’60s and ’70s.
It was clearly apparent the old guard is confused by integrity during a recent nightly news discussion. A national host and his guest expert were lamenting the fact some newly elected members of Congress were “different.” They were perplexed that they really were committed to the principles that had gotten them elected. They were devastated that these characters were willing to be one-termers who didn’t care about being reelected but were going to stick to their promises—they couldn’t be bought or intimidated. Different in this particular discussion meant that those new politicians from both sides of the aisle were honest, incorruptible, and principled.
The depressing thing is that both commentators thought this was a bad thing; they both were upset that citizens had elected people who were honest. It doesn’t matter where firefighters fall politically—Democrat or Republican, liberal or conservative: We want our elected officials to be principled, and we want them to do what they said they were going to do. We want them to go to work and do what is right for our country. We strongly feel that providing world-class fire protection to every community is good for the country. We don’t want to elect anyone who can be bought or who is willing to do anything to be reelected; we have seen where that gets us. We should be angry with candidates we have endorsed for not doing what they had promised they were going to do. But we should never elect anyone with the expectation that we control them or we can make them do what we want; they must do what is right for their town, their city, or their country.
The new breed of politicians and our new breed of firefighters aren’t really different; actually, they are old-school, not like the “say anything to stay in office” politicians of the past 90 years, not like the “say anything to get along/no confrontation” firefighters of my generation. They are the new Madisons and Hamiltons, the new Frieds and Stapletons: They are our greatest hope.
There is a wave of social and political awareness rising, and we are seeing it in our proud profession. We can no longer paint our profession with a single color or single political platform. We represent the diversity that is our country, socially and politically. That is a good thing. That is progress that will make us stronger.