Tag Archives: election 2014

Election Reactions 2014

5 Nov

Time to exhale in relief: the election is over. It’s hard to think of a more exhausting campaign season, or one so devoid of any sort of positive platform—and that’s a pretty low bar. The GOP won big by virtue of not being Barack Obama, and a presidency that once inspired optimism even in parts of the right is now lurching toward a tired end. The President has spent the past few months in a bunker, rarely venturing on to the campaign trail; it seems a fitting sign of the distance between all American politicians and the people who elect them.

It’s easy to blast the whole exercise. The relentless attack ads made a mockery of rational debate, as does a celebrity-obsessed media filled with people shouting at one another. (I turned on CNN for the first time in years last night, to watch the results come in; I didn’t last fifteen minutes before fleeing elsewhere in search of some sanity.) It was obviously a good night if you’re a Republican, but it’s not like the GOP has some grand Contract with America or Compassionate Conservatism in mind. For that matter, even the Tea Party energy wasn’t anywhere near what it was four years ago. Most know that Obamacare repeal isn’t really realistic, and were careful not to overplay the social issues. (If anything, excessive focus on social issues hampered some of the Democrats who failed to realize that abortion is probably not going to swing an election in this sort of political climate.) They played it safe and delivered, and the blankness of the national political agenda could, one supposes, leave room for some creativity. Or just an even more blatant brand of gridlock.

So, how’s a jaded citizen to respond? In one of two ways, I’d think.

The first is one to which I am temperamentally inclined. This election simply shows how stories of grand sweeps of progress are never really right, and how two-party democracy always trends back to a balance point. It’s a cycle, one that could well swing back in two years when it’s the Republicans’ turn to defend a lot of Senate seats in blue states. New people come in, old ones get pitched, and we move along. Yes, the losers will moan about how everything is going to hell, but somehow, we all survive. We survived eight years of Bush, we’ll survive eight years Obama, and we’ll survive whoever comes next, too.

The process isn’t smooth. It isn’t going to please anyone who wants drastic changes. The legislation that comes out of it is always a mash-up of special interests and people working at cross-purposes. Still, we find a way to muddle through, and it isolates us from drastic shifts that could destabilize everything. If you look around at the rest of the world, you’ll be hard-pressed to find something better (with the possible exception of a couple homogenous northern European countries, some of which are on the verge of demographic crisis). The old Winston Churchill line comes back: democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others. Disappointment comes only to those who have a far too rosy view of their own power and the vagaries of human nature. Backers of each party must soldier on, looking for little wins here and there and hoping they can claim some victories in the long view.

***

There is a second narrative, though, that expands on the first one, and it has some merit. It says that there is more than just a balancing act going on, and that there is a broader cultural shift that is slowly carrying the whole system along with it. One side of the spectrum rails against the expansion of the state, while the other fears the whims of the market unchecked. The argument, however, says that this is all a false choice: the two are joined at the hip, natural outgrowths of a philosophy of individual liberty.

This is an old critique of possible pitfalls of democracy, with roots in Aristotle and Tocqueville. As equals in mediocrity, everyone lives out their lives in an economic rat race, doing what they can to accrue status. With everyone fending for themselves, the state must step in and do something to guarantee order. And so the government creates complicated codes from on high, regulating things to keep us quiet and perhaps confused. We hold elections, but they don’t really matter. We trade one distant elite for another, all life subjugated beneath a tutelary power.

This isn’t a critique of the left or the right; both major parties are implicated. That mashed-up form of governance may work for a spell, but there will come a time when the contradictions are too serious to hold together. We want Medicare and social security, so long as we don’t have to pay for them; we want all our liberties, but anyone who disagrees is a bigot unworthy of a spot at the table. We end up with corporate welfare or a nanny state or whatever pejorative name you’d like, and a national security state fed by a military-industrial complex. The insidious trends of money in politics and greater inaccessibility leave us with only a shell of the supposed democracy.

This isn’t a very reassuring story. But, unlike the other one, it invites action. If this is reality, we’d better do something, and soon. Not a revolt in the hills; revolution has had its day.  Not the libertarian alternative currently in vogue; any realistic implementation of that vision only feeds the beast. Instead, we’re left with my old hobbyhorse: a retreat to the local, carving out little spheres where we makes things as right as we can in our own little corner.

Do I buy this wholeheartedly? Not quite. We still have a ways to fall before I’m convinced. I’d like to hope it isn’t true. But I can handle a world in which it is.

***

How does Minnesota fit in to all of this? It actually had a pretty unique election night. While the Republicans did regain the state House of Representatives, Minnesota remains an island of blue amid the red tide. DFLers swept the statewide races and retained the rural congressional districts that were up for grabs, most notably Rick Nolan’s Eighth District. This is really what makes Minnesota politics unique. The Twin Cities and their suburbs tend to behave by normal urban-suburban left-right dynamics, but Greater (Don’t-You-Dare-Call-It-Outstate) Minnesota just doesn’t cooperate. Some of this is probably the lingering power of an old guard from a different generation, as in the case of Collin Peterson and certain parts of the Iron Range. But still, Democrats have an awful lot of staying power in Greater Minnesota.

There’s been an attempt to argue that the Minnesota 8th District is now a swing district due to its relative cultural conservatism and the decline of union power of the Range. This story is pretty much wrong. The 8th could turn red again as the suburbs sprawl northward while the northeast shrinks, but Republicans won’t win in northeast Minnesota until they find a message that is more than boilerplate conservatism (perhaps with some lip service to mining tacked on top). It’s going to take something creative to dislodge the DFL machine, and said creativity is nowhere to be seen. The next generation of Range politics looks a lot more like Carly Melin than it does like any Republican.

Duluth, to no one’s surprise, remains a DFL bastion, with the incumbents and newcomer Jennifer Schultz whipping the opposition in the local House races. Most of their opponents were also-ran sacrificial lambs, and the local Republicans just don’t have the infrastructure to muster anything serious. As on the Range, the DFL has been the adaptable party here, fielding candidates like Schultz and Erik Simonson who reflect the particularities of their sides of a rather divided city. Of course, one can be a pretty mediocre Democrat and still win in Duluth, but the onus is on the opposition to come up with something new that actually inspires people beyond the true believers. The same could no doubt be said of Democrats in deep red areas. Once again: if you don’t like the system, the way out is a focus on the local.

On a final note, there was one Duluth-area result that made me do a double-take: Marcia Stromgren won a seat on the Soil and Water Conservation District board. Yes, that Marcia Stromgren. The rest of the Soil and Water Conservation District board has my deepest sympathy.

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Standing Before Lincoln

3 Nov

Election Day, 2008. I was a freshman in college in America’s capital, absorbed by the prospect of a career in politics. Unlike some, I had no grand vision of a radically transformed society under Barack Obama, but I certainly had an appreciation for symbolic power. It is easy to forget just how much we were all swept up in the moment; on election night, everyone at Georgetown ran to the White House, regardless of politics. The political consciousness of this generation knew no great achievement: the bungled 2000 election, the tragedy of 9/11, a failed mission to democratize the Middle East, and a sudden financial crisis. Finally, it seemed, something had happened that could make us feel good about ourselves.

The adolescent mind of the high achiever, conditioned by continued progress from one successful stage in life to another, saw reason to believe the wider world could act in the same way.  I needed a story that fit my belief in political action. In the absence of any other higher faith, any other guiding point with which to orient the lofty goals I had in mind, the gospel of progress was all I had. The next night, I made a more personal journey, a walk down to the Lincoln Memorial alone. The inscription above Lincoln’s head makes it abundantly clear: this is a temple, a monument to a holy figure in a national myth. If there was a road to an earthly Jerusalem, it surely went through here. Everything made sense, and I was a part of a movement to make things better.

Two years later I was in a very different capital, watching from afar as all that hype about progress crumbled. How far I’d wandered from my Duluth roots: an election party in a penthouse apartment in Mexico City, with a whole bunch of liberal expats and upper-crust Mexicans shaking their heads at what was becoming of the world. (The best of them was the Porfirio Díaz look-alike stumping around the place with a cane.) It was delightful. And yet, what of this challenge to my democratic faith? What to make of this world in which the “overwhelming force of unreason,” in the words of George Packer, had trumped the story of progress? I needed answers.

And so I went and stood before Lincoln again. This time, there was no temple, no reverent surroundings: just the man standing atop a pedestal in a dark park in Polanco, staring across a street at Martin Luther King. It was a crisis of faith, as I came to appreciate one of those nagging possibilities I’d known since a childhood brush with unreason, but never fully grasped: history may not make sense. But it was more than that. In that moment, I realized the liberating truth: it really didn’t matter. It didn’t matter if the political world all went wrong. I could still be a contented person. And I would be.

It took a while to understand exactly what had happened in the Parque Lincoln. One swing in congressional power isn’t enough to re-orient a worldview, nor should it be. Many events over the course of the next year—the Arab Spring, the death of Osama bin Laden—suggested that there was yet cause for optimism. For a time, I clung to my liberal dream before it all came into clearer resolution: good things happen here, bad things happen there, murky things happen everywhere, and there’s no good narrative to fit it all. I needed some help to find a new story. Mexico had already armed me with the Octavio Paz interview, while Georgetown gave me a Catholic sort of critique, and in time there was The Answer to Everything. And, of course, I still had my roots, lurking there amid everything. I wrote relentlessly; old stories died, and frustration begat inward retreat before things started to take shape again.

Four years after that night in Polanco, I certainly haven’t forsaken the political realm. Parts of my old political philosophy remain, though not all, and I am ashamed of some earlier strident cries, and some refusal to see political opponents as friends or colleagues. Instead, I try to walk a tightrope, often playing the neutral role; I can see far from here, but I’m well aware of the risks of neutrality for neutrality’s sake, and the meekness of indecision. I still sympathize with stories many of my old liberal travelers tell themselves, and a fair number of their aims; I also now sympathize with those more guided by religious faith or nostalgia or a number of other stories we tell ourselves to make sense of it all. None of those are mine, though I have my own stories, just as partial in their truth. It can be a lonely place, here before Lincoln; I must be on constant guard to avoid pretension or extreme distance. But I make no apologies, and it would be a shame not to share the view.

On Tuesday night, I’ll watch the election results, just as I did in DC and Mexico—and in Duluth two years ago, when I was definitively on the road to this approach. I may even celebrate or express my disappointment at times. But that will be all, and on Wednesday morning I’ll go back about my business with little regard for what happened the night before. I’ve found the freedom to cease being consumed by grand sweeps of progress, focusing instead on little niches where I really can make things right. (And make them right I will.) There is no right or wrong side of history; there are only more questions, questions that press endlessly against those presuppositions and neat little stories we tell ourselves to make sense of it all.

I don’t have answers to many of them, and I’m fine with that. That’s no excuse for stopping the search, though. These past six years have been an exercise in learning the value of limits, but in one realm, the pursuit is relentless. The questions never end.

Yes, We Have an Election in Mid-January

12 Jan

If you live on the east side of Duluth, you may have seen a few lawn signs peeking out of snowbanks, even though the November elections are long since over. No, these people are not being lazy in removing their signs; we have an election coming up! The passing of 2nd District Commissioner Steve O’Neil threw the St. Louis County Board into limbo, and the timeline for an election to fill his seat has left us with a special election on January 14.

There was a primary back in November, which narrowed the field down to two candidates. They are familiar faces to anyone who knows Duluth politics: current Second District City Councilor Patrick Boyle and recently retired At-Large Councilor Jim Stauber. Boyle won the primary by a decent margin, while Stauber barely scraped by Scott Keenan for the second spot, but given the odd timing of the election and the likely challenges in turning out voters in mid-January, nothing is a given here.

Because of those odd dynamics and the well-established reputations of each of the candidates, this has become as clear a right-versus-left race as one can have in a local, nonpartisan election. With turnout likely to stay low, both sides appear to have focused their attention on turning out the base, each relying on their established ties in the community.

Boyle is a reliably liberal Councilor who was just elected to his second term, and is the O’Neil family’s favored candidate to win the seat once held by the longtime liberal champion. His campaign emphasizes his close ties with many local politicians, and claims he will work with them to improve roads and bring more quality jobs to the area.

Stauber, on the other hand, is a proud conservative, and has made it his priority to hold the line on taxes. His campaign also emphasizes his long years of service to Duluth, and his intimate knowledge of local government. As a Councilor, Stauber was often a rather lonely voice crying for fiscal restraint and was a frequent teller of cautionary tales; while history did sometimes prove him right, he was often powerless to shape the Council’s agenda in any serious way. As a County Commissioner, it would be a different story: the Board extends far beyond Duluth and into more conservative, rural areas of St. Louis County, and Stauber would actually be in the majority if elected.

Indeed, Boyle’s campaign has sought to play off of voters’ worries about growing conservative influence in St. Louis County, and given the well-known proclivities of a majority of east side voters, that is a sensible play. As a liberal on this side of this city, he should be able to win if he can turn out his base. Stauber, however, has been able to buck that trend throughout his successful political career, and enjoys a solid base of support as well. Both are well-qualified for the job; in the end, this race will boil down to connections and political leanings. It should be a good race.

Here are links to the candidates’ websites:

Boyle | Stauber

Here is a map of the St. Louis County districts. (Scroll down to get a close-up of Duluth.)

If you live in the 2nd District, here’s the city’s guide to finding your polling place. Get out and vote!