Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Red State Blues

Been crazy busy for the past couple of weeks, but election day brings a nice break with kids home from school and baking cookies with me. I felt like an all-American mom from the 50s, and my son offered me the jumper he wore to school as Hester Prynne last week to wear under an apron so I'd look the part as well.
Election day 2010 is a depressing circumstance, although by some measures it should not be so. For example, the "Rally to Restore Sanity" over the weekend drew a quarter of a million generally liberal people to the Mall, dwarfing the August gather that joined the neo-John Bircher Glenn Beck. Moreover, the man so many of us worked so hard to elect with such hope and fanfare two years ago has actually delivered on many of his promises: including tax breaks for the middle class; financial system reform; health care reform; the fair pay act; student loan reform; troop drawdown in Iraq; consumer credit protections.
It would seem that progressives would be celebrating two years of significant, well, progress, on many of the issues that concern us. Instead, we have a dispirited electorate marked mainly by inchoate anger directed, by the universal law of elections, at the majority party even while voters says they can't stand the other party.
The Nation's Marc Cooper offers this observation:

This weekend, I am feeling just as strongly that the Dems are doomed on Tuesday. As I did say in the linked post above about the Stewart Rally, I think it was a massive (250,000 strong) manifestation of a Democratic constituency that has no effective leadership, no convincing message, and no ability to counter the crap propaganda coming from the Right. This is a closing weekend marked by an absolute vacuum.
I also fear it is the beginning of a prolonged period of political stasis if not outright decline. I can tell you from my position at a major university, that most young people have already lost faith in the political system and for the most part are ignoring this election.
That is, perhaps, not the wisest thing to do. But I understand the apathy and disillusionment. Democrats have controlled Congress for four years (and some important measures have been taken) but they have, nevertheless, failed to demonstrate any capacity to lead and inspire.

I don't disagree with any of that, but I'm not sure it leads anywhere either. As a description it strikes me as accurate, but it doesn't do much by way of explanation and offers nothing by way of alternative.
There are so many problems with our system it's hard to know where to start. The overwhelming power of money in American politics is corrosive and corrupting on all sides, and the Supreme Court is not helping.
But I wonder if some of the problems are not more basic and even more bipartisan. Take, for example, redistricting. I live in a district whose Congressman, Jim Moran, will hold the seat until he decides to leave it or until he dies. There is nothing unusual in that. More than 90 percent of incumbents who seek reelection win. I think it's true that a representative is more likely to die in office than to lose an election. There are lots of good reasons for this. To begin with, you have to have a lot of support to win in the first place, so there's a broad base to seek reelection. Moreover, incumbents have huge name recognition advantages over most opponents. They also have, almost always, the support of their party and rarely face any primary opposition.
Nothing will or should change any of those basic truths, but as I think about my representative here in the 8th District, for whom I cast another vote this afternoon, I also think about the guy who represents Virginia's 7th District, Eric Cantor. It's a cold hard fact that Northern Virginia is far more liberal than the rest of the state, and certainly more so than Rep. Cantor's carefully drawn stretch of mostly rural countryside that stretches from the Richmond suburbs almost to I-81 in the Shenandoah Valley.
The problem does not lie in conservative parts of states vs. liberal parts. The problem arises when districts are drawn such that no opposition point of view could ever be elected absent a scandal so ridiculous that the people vote out a bum that a party would never remove.
For example, I lived in Dan Rostenkowski's Chicago district when he was indicted on mail fraud charges that eventually led to a 17-month prison sentence. Rostenkowski, who chaired the House Ways and Means Committee, was renominated by the Democratic Party, and with no one else to turn to the voters elected Michael Flanagan, a conservative Republican in the 1994 election. Flanagan's election did not indicate any embrace of conservative positions. Voters were simply fed up with Rostenkowski. In fact, Flanagan served a single two-year term and was turned out in 1996 when Rod Blagojevich was elected.
In a competitively drawn district I can't imagine that Rostenkowski would have ever been nominated again. Moreover, perhaps in a competitively drawn district he would never have risen to such absolute power in the first place. That is not to say he would never have become the powerful chair of a powerful committee, but it is to say that the arrogance of that power would be checked by the political necessity of communicating beyond a completely safe base of support.
It is impossible to hold leaders accountable when their reelection is a given. And when their base is carefully drawn to represent only one political perspective -- whether it's liberal Democrat like me or conservative Republican -- there is never any real contest of ideas much less any necessity of building broad-based coalitions who can work for solutions to specific problems.
Without opposition, political leaders can afford to be arrogant and ignorant of anything but their most narrowly held beliefs -- a dangerous and dispiriting combination. When the system all but guarantees the election and reelection of such politicians it is no wonder so many are so turned off.
When the system as a whole is held captive to incredibly powerful moneyed interests, election day is nothing but the blues whether you're in the Red or Blue tonight.

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