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Maybe the Democrats Don't Need a Deep Electoral Bench

The Republican “wave” (what that means electorally depends upon whom you talk to) in the recent Congressional elections has highlighted their opponents’ weaknesses at the state level.  To a large extent there are two electorates: one at the mid-term and one at the Presidential year.

The one thing these two have in common, according to one Jonathan Gruber, is that they’re both stupid.  And that has much of the right in a tiswas.  Well, I hate to burst balloons, but the idea that the American people are stupid has been an article of faith among our ruling elites as long as I can remember.  I certainly was inculcated with that concept growing up.  The difference between then and now is that, with the Internet and viral videos, it’s a lot easier for this élite idea to be presented in the raw to the general population.  And using legislative and political artifices to get stuff done (good and bad) in Congress isn’t anything new either.  One would like to think that our elites, as smart as they claim to be, would use these tricks to pass something better than the expensive kludge known as Obamacare, but that too tells us that our “meritocracy” isn’t as advertised.

Getting back to the state level thing, the Democrats’ problems there go beyond the U.S. Congress; they extend to the governors’ mansions and state legislatures.  That’s a bad thing politically because your states and localities are the “farm club” for bigger things.  Today’s city councilman or woman (and the Republicans are getting better at that, too) is tomorrow’s U.S. Senator or more.  Even Barack Obama had to pass through the Illinois state senate on his way from organising the community to upending the nation.

The shallowness of that electoral “bench” shows up most vividly in the Democrats’ 2016 Presidential prospects.  To put it simply, they come down to Hillary Clinton.  No one else comes close.  And she isn’t an ideal candidate.  There’s always the baggage from Bill (although Obama has done a lot to lighten that load), the Benghazi fiasco, and IMHO the biggest unknown, her health.  For the party which claims to be the new American majority and the darling of the Millennials and the immigrants, to hang the 2016 Presidential  aspirations on her doesn’t speak well for the breadth of their leadership.  That’s an opportunity for the Republicans to take.

Or is it? What I think is happening is that aspiring Democrats are moving up in other ways.  They’re taking their places in NGO’s (which, as Julian Assange points out, are more often than not fronts for corporatist/political agendas and people), in the legal profession (where they can move up to the judicial bench), in the bureaucracy and finally in our pliant media.  There are two reasons for this.

The first is practical: moving up in this way is less risky (one doesn’t have to deal with the uncertainties and risks of our manic electoral system) and generally pays better.  The second goes back to the Progressive Era and is based on the idea that “professionals” are better at governing than elected “political hacks”.  That concept is well entrenched in our system; most of our career bureaucracy is based on that, and Congress has given the executive broad powers that put them far away from pesky elected officials.  (Which is why Obama’s use of executive power is possible; my only surprise is that he didn’t start using it sooner).  It also creates a natural army against shrinking the government.  There’s still a great deal of debate about whether the IRS was ordered from the top to put the stall on Tea Party groups, but one thing is certain: people like Lois Lerner didn’t need much encouragement.

And recent history, more than the Right would care to admit, vindicates this approach.  The Religious Right’s experience is instructive.  Their greatest mistake was to put too much confidence in making change through the electoral process and not recognising that their main opponent was an élite that didn’t have any use for them and whose minimisation was essential to their success.  The result was an expensive effort that has yielded little except for antagonising large parts of the population.  The only exception to that has been the pro-life movement, which was born in the wake of a major piece of élite fiat and whose legislative options have been limited, to say the least.

The idea that the electoral process isn’t central to political life strikes many as unAmerican.  But we live in a different country now; it’s time to get used to it and act accordingly.


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