Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Political Incumbency: the poisonous well

Many polls suggest the midterm election of 2010 may break all records and destroy all barriers toward that which had previously been thought impregnable: the relative safety of the incumbency. Over the years incumbents at virtually all levels of government were thought to be nearly untouchable due to several factors, not least of which is the complacency of the electorate. And this complacency has been shown to show a distinctive advantage to one single factor: name recognition inherent to the incumbent.

The sad fact is that many voters simply don't pay that much attention to government unless or until they are directly and adversely affected by public policy - or until they get a chain e-mail that is, at best, only half true and, at worst, blatantly false but nevertheless appeals to one's raw emotions such as President Obama "cancelling" National Prayer Day. This, however, does not stop these arm-chair politicians from resending this e-mail to every address they have. So when election season rolls around, we are treated (or inundated) with political ads that are as distasteful as they are useless to the discerning voter because experienced political advisers know that the general population of voters pays more attention to to sound bites than substance. They go for the easy feed, the quick snack, rather than the full meal. Senator Blanche Lincoln, D-AR, is up for reelection, and my TV is constantly showing a commercial surely endorsed by Sen. Lincoln and her crew doing nothing more than disparaging her Democratic opponent for the primary. Once in awhile we see a commercial for Lincoln showcasing her position as chair of the Agriculture Committee and touting her past, but there is no talk about what is in store for us henceforth. So we are left with this conclusion: the future with any incumbent means more of the same. Period. It has been true for years, and it will continue to be true.

Albert Einstein is quoted as having once said, "The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again but expecting different results." Are we a nation gone mad? Have we truly lost our collective mind so much so that we will gripe and complain about the current situation, however we may be directly or indirectly affected, but then reelect the same politicians over and again? All indications are this is exactly what we do and, ultimately, who we really are. And why do we continue to shoot ourselves in the foot? Fear. Purely and simply, we are afraid of the unknown, so for good or bad we reward mediocrity. Incumbents convince us that we "need" their experience and that we will be utterly lost without them.

Lincoln is playing up her chair in the Agriculture Committee by coming dangerously close to suggesting Arkansas farmers will go under if she loses that chair. Small, family-owned and operated farms in Arkansas have been going under for years, and Mrs. Lincoln is asking for a third term. This means she is wrapping up twelve years in the US Senate before which she also served a couple of terms in the US House of Representatives.

Let me not put too much emphasis on Mrs. Lincoln, however, lest my entire point be lost because her incumbency alone is no more a problem than the competition she faces not only in the Democratic primary but in the general election should she win her party's nomination. In the Democratic primary, she faces Arkansas' lieutenant governor (another incumbent, just on another level), and among the Republicans seeking to unseat her is an entire field of state-level, though perhaps term-limited, incumbents. It may be a natural progression for idealistic and ambitious, career-minded politicians to move up from one level of government to the other, but is this experience any more useful than what we currently have?

I dare suggest that it is not Democrats or Republicans who are the problem in government even as I am not happy with either party though I lean toward one. Instead, I see a much bigger problem with career-minded politicians whose upward mobility is the primary driving factor behind their desire to continue such work (I hesitate to use the term "service"). In this vein, then, is the biggest problem I see in local, county, state, and national politics: expeditious and essentially lazy legislation designed only for the reelection of an incumbent while putting important work on the "back burner" until after the election.

May we remember that we owe no one such a seat of privilege of representing us merely because of their length of time on the public dole (again, note the absence of the term "service"). There are no inherent rewards due a professional politician, and we own them nothing. The only way this Congress, these state legislatures, these city and county councils and boards will ever understand who really is in charge is if/when they are "fired". But until such time as this ideal ever comes to fruition, expect more of the same regardless of the party in majority.

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