Sturm: Midterm Message: Respect, don’t dis, the People
November 10, 2014
"The people have spoken, and they must be punished," former New York City Mayor Ed Koch famously vented in defeat.
In sweeping away waves of Democrats in Tuesday's midterm election — even in blue states like Maryland, Illinois and Massachusetts — a punished and disrespected American people have vented, silencing the politicians whose agenda and tactics they soundly rejected.
In this collective Think Again election, Harry Reid was demoted for allowing hyper-partisanship to trump the constitutional integrity of the Senate, known as the "world's most deliberative body" — except under Reid's leadership.
Though Louisiana Sen. Mary Landrieu's fate awaits a December runoff, she typified the political class's disdain for constituents, attributing electoral woes to their sexism and racism. "The South hasn't always been the friendliest place for African-Americans," she told NBC correspondent Chuck Todd during her campaign's frantic homestretch, nor "a good place for women to present ourselves."
But with the American dream slipping beyond reach for ordinary citizens, and amid unease over America's increasingly weak standing in the world, how is dissing one's constituents a winning message?
Apparently, that's shrewd politics, even in a state that thrice elected Landrieu and just re-elected its Indian governor, according to the New Republic's Brian Beutler, who applauded "Landrieu's candor (because it) came in the service of her political interest."
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Herein lies America's gravest problem, one that Tuesday's midterm tsunami should help mitigate: Rather than do the right thing even when no one is looking — the definition of integrity — today's self-serving leaders routinely do the wrong yet politically advantageous thing, even when everybody's looking.
Whether in the Rose Garden, in TV interviews, before Congress or on the campaign trail, political elites have promised the unattainable, spun the news cycle with false narratives, stonewalled investigations and smeared adversaries. Absent honest disagreement and accountability, the "truth" becomes any story that sticks, allowing them to coast on benevolent intentions, above their policies' wreckage.
Labeling successive controversies "phony scandals" — Obamacare chaos, dying veterans, murdered U.S. diplomats in Benghazi, IRS harassment, NSA snooping, Syria's red-line erasure — they've managed to stay atop the responsibility-evading tightrope. Despite overwhelming foreign and domestic concerns, most campaigns refused to discuss Americans' real preoccupations, paying dearly.
For too long, politicians have played the identity-politics trump card to win political advantage at the expense of the public good. Actively fomenting social unrest, they've cynically divided Americans into warring camps while short-circuiting the deliberation and debate on which national consensus in a pluralistic democracy depends.
Doubling down on the war-on-women shtick, campaigns courted female voters like the Neanderthals they claimed their opponents to be. Consider the menacing Colorado ad about condom shortages because "Cory Gardner banned birth control" or the contention that "A vote for Tom Cotton is a vote against Arkansas women." Ironically, even Joni Ernst — now Iowa's first female senator and a combat veteran — was accused of waging a war on women.
Republicans, Congressman Charlie Rangel declared, "believe that slavery isn't over and that they won the Civil War!" Actually, Republicans — the party of Lincoln — did win the Civil War and passed the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments abolishing slavery and granting voting and due-process rights to former slaves, though Democrats work hard to convince otherwise.
Reporting on these race-baiting efforts, the New York Times noted "how overtly they play on fears of intimidation and repression … invoking Trayvon Martin's death, the unrest in Ferguson, Mo., and Jim Crow-era segregation — to jolt African-Americans into voting."
The Times was surprised that "the effort is being led by national Democrats and their state party organizations." In North Carolina, Reid's super PAC ran a radio ad linking Senate candidate Thom Tillis to Martin's 2012 death in Florida, garnering four Pinocchios from the Washington Post. Additionally, incendiary leaflets distributed at black churches featured "a grainy image of a lynching," foreshadowing a reversion to a pre-civil-rights era if Sen. Kay Hagan lost.
To counter the cynical race baiting, Louisiana state Sen. Elbert Guillory and his Free at Last PAC ran ads across the South noting that while Landrieu, Hagan and Sen. Mark Pryor promised to be champions of the black community, the white-black gap grew in virtually every socioeconomic category — fatherless homes, high school dropouts, incomes, poverty, incarceration and joblessness.
Ultimately, Guillory's message — not Landrieu's — resonated. Even deeply red South Carolina re-elected a female Indian governor and a black U.S. senator, proving that Southern voters judge on character and competence, not skin color or gender. Making America's promise accessible to every demographic requires honest leaders who hew to their constituents' concerns, not their own.
Think Again — in Koch's ironic wisecrack was the insight that American voters punish failing leaders, not vice versa. May this be the lesson our new crop of leaders draw from their victory.
Melanie Sturm lives in Aspen. She reminds readers to Think Again. You might change your mind. She welcomes comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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