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Pure Onsense

Notes From a Dissatisfied Voter

Scott Zuke

(Nov, 2010)  Frederick County has a large pool of candidates to consider in this yearís midterm election. Unfortunately, thereís little to distinguish them from each other besides the variety of the staggering number of typos and formatting errors in the League of Women Voters guide. Throw a stone into the crowd and youíre bound to hit someone who promises to be more responsive and transparent to voters, to practice fiscal restraint, scrutinize the budget for spending to be cut, make the county more inviting to businesses, and to fight for a fair share of state funds. They all say that the county needs elected officials willing to make "the hard decisions" in fiscal issues.

Maybe we should count ourselves lucky that there isnít a shortage of citizens eager to bear the responsibility of decision-making. And as for the similarity of their platforms, perhaps itís simply to be expected that difficult times will cause candidatesí proposals to converge toward some common mean. However, there is a sense of disappointment and resignation one feels when trying to do oneís civic duty by researching all the candidates to make an informed choice, only to realize thereís little more than Rís or Dís next to their names to tell them apart. Choosing between identical platforms is not really a choice at all, and thereís something a bit disheartening about that, even when the one choice offered aligns with oneís desires.

Even more frustrating is the extent to which our local incumbents have become entrenched in office. Here in Marylandís sixth district, Congressman Roscoe Bartlett hardly even bothers to campaign anymore. In mid-October I ran into Rep. Bartlett at an event at College Park and introduced myself as a Thurmont resident. He remarked, seemingly unaware of how it would sound to a skeptical voter, that Thurmont was a very conservative area and that he didnít need to worry about getting support there. That was the extent of our conversation (To be fair, he was in a hurry). Nevertheless, in what should be the peak of the campaign season, hereís an incumbent with no apparent interest in what a constituent has to say to him, with no interest in lobbying for his vote. I wish I could say this was hubris, but he has every reason to feel safe. Heís running against an opponent, Andrew Duck, who has already lost two previous elections and brings nothing new to the table his third time around. Duck is such a weak opponent, Bartlett would be smart to donate to his primary campaign each election season. Still, these are the "choices" we are given. One wonders, with candidates like these, who needs enfranchisement?

While the media will spend the next few weeks analyzing the results of the election ad nauseum, the more interesting question will be what all of us do after it is over. Will anyone be satisfied by the results of this election? Even if the rate of incumbent defeats is higher than normal, there are no signs that we should expect any significant change of pace in Washington. For those who accept this as the status quo, a switch to Republican control of the House (should this be the result) is nothing more than a minor swing of the pendulum which characterizes our democracy: every few years, the balance of power switches sides as a natural result of checks and balances, both institutionally and in terms of voter preferences.

But what about those citizens who strongly oppose this status quo, such as the tea party movement? While a divided Congress may bring the progressive phase of the Obama presidency to a close, thereís no reason to suspect that a major self-reevaluation of the federal governmentís Constitutional role is imminent (despite the GOPís election-year groveling). Even if some of the tea party candidates pull off victories, I suspect, as Iíve said before, that Washington is more likely to change them than the other way around. How many election cycles will the tea partiers have to wait to get tangible results? Even the leaders of the Frederick tea party are openly critical of Rep. Bartlett (who nevertheless claims to be a leading proponent of the movement and its values), yet there are few left who hold any expectation that his will not be a lifetime appointment.

What all of this amounts to is that it is increasingly apparent that citizens have few avenues for effective political participation in our current system. Protest rallies and larger movements come and go, but we remain stuck in the pendulum: a rarely satisfying dichotomy between democrats and republicans, in which power shifts slightly every few years but little else changes. Meanwhile the vast majority of incumbents retain their seats through each cycle, and often thereís little to distinguish them from their rivals anyway.

I suspect that what has sustained the tea party so far is that it has revitalized a previously disengaged segment of the population by tapping into what one democracy scholar termed a "nostalgia for effective political participation." One could make some informed guesses as to what ever happened to this sense of meaningful political engagement. The tea party would say that it was diminished by the progressive movement, which shifted political power from the states to the federal government. I would also note that nationally broadcast news and "Big Government" grew up side by side, shifting our attention away from our local communities and toward national-scale debates. We have thus become content to argue with a television set more often than debate or collaborate with our neighbors.

As a hyper-localized grassroots movement, the tea party has brought citizens together, often through social media, but also significantly in the form of face-to-face meetings, fostering a sense of community and shared destiny that has been in decline in our society for some time. This is an important feature of a healthy democracy (as is heterogeneity of ideological views, which the tea party does not excel at so much). The question now will be, will this be enough to sustain the movement if this election shows effective political participation to remain elusive? If so, what options might we investigate next in the ongoing task of addressing our political dissatisfaction?

Read other article by Scott Zuke