The Pace of a Political Downward Spiral


As an elected official facing a concerted effort to make everything my elected body does seem like some sort of scandal or outrage, I have a lot of sympathy with Francis Turner’s concerns, which he offers in context of the Trump-Russia story and Brexit:

… I am concerned because one of reasons why elections are a good thing is that they provide a mechanism for peaceful transitions without the losers being shot or put in jail. The fact that the losers in this election appear to have attempted to undermine the winners is an extremely bad precedent because it leads to the winners deciding to take it out on the losers next time around and that in turn leads to people not relinquishing power short of being turfed out with violence – see Venezuela and any number of Latin American, Central Asian and African dictatorships.

In fact allowing the losers to come up with one way after another to try and delegitimise an election they lost is bad on its own because the ability to “throw the bums out” is a key feature of democracy. If voters can’t trust that their votes will be respected they are likely to resort to other methods of expressing their displeasure with the current set of rulers and that is something that these rulers may come to regret.

Over here in Tiverton, the recently elected right-of-center reformer types are facing continual challenge, and it began almost immediately after the election.  Worse, all the rules and standards only go one way.  In the past, when the town solicitor suggested that putting something on the ballot might cause problems, the Board of Canvassers kept it off; now, they ignore the solicitor.  The School Committee can spend months advocating for its budget request, but the moment the Town Council holds a meeting to discuss the budget, the cry goes out that we’re using public resources to affect an election.

In many ways, the current environment in my town is the same as it was about a decade ago when some of my friends held a strong hand in local elective office, but every time the cycle goes through, the corrosion expands, and there are only two ways it can go — both dangerous.

The first is that both sides play tit-for-tat.  Whatever behavior bedevils us, we might engage in when the gavel passes to different hands.  That approach can only make things worse and ensure that the government is never able to operate.  After all, the essential strategy is to prevent your opposition from being able to succeed so that the electorate will look for alternatives in the next election.

The second possibility is that one side continually takes the high road.  When we’re out of office, someday, we’ll stay engaged, of course, but we won’t strive to turn every meeting that the opposition runs into a circus.  We’ll file complaints where something is egregiously wrong, but we won’t pore over every set of meeting minutes looking for possible complaints to file on something, anything.

In other words, the guiding question won’t be how we can make the people in power uncomfortable, but how we can keep them within the boundaries of the rules, so that we can make our case to the public.  This approach will keep things moving along for longer, but it means the electorate can’t really correct course, because every time they try to turn the wheel in one way, the machinery screeches.

At the local level, the foreseeable future does not include violence.  Other extra-political means are easier… like leaving, which deprives the community of talent and a balanced perspective (not to mention tax revenue).  But that may mean only that the downward spiral is not as rapid, while the gradual pace makes reform all the more difficult.

Leaving can take the form of physically removing one’s self from the community, but it can also mean apathy and checking out.  We see this across Rhode Island, and time will tell whether it’s a national phenomenon.  If the price of winning an election is an immediate and constant attack on your very legitimacy, fewer people will see the value, and those who don’t will tend to be those who would have brought the most even-handed attitude and have the least self-interest in seeking public office.

So, the insoluble problem:  Those who benefit from chaos and from a lower bar for behavior must be convinced that it isn’t their interest to continue doing that which brings them immediate advantage.  If there’s hope, it must involve a near-universal insistence that we follow the ordinary course of our election cycles and a willingness not to perpetuate outrage even when those in office are doing things with which we disagree, provided they follow the rules.

  • Rhett Hardwick

    Of course, I have only had one lifetime, but it is difficult to remember a time when we were so divided along party lines by what must be defined as hatred. I am reminded of a “blind date” some 20 years ago. She was an artist, so I assumed her politics. When it was discovered that I was a Republican, the response was “Take me home, we have nothing to talk about”. Having worked in NYC as a “Modern Dancer” I doubt she had ever knowingly met a Republican before. But her mind was made up (and I saved a few dollars). Republicans refused to fund the arts and they were evil.

    • ShannonEntropy

      Memories !!

      As an undergrad at Ohio State I had to grow my hair long and become a Night Owl** to party & get drunk & high & laid

      Keeping my conservative views under wrap wasn’t too hard… we all “Hated Nixon” and most coeds couldn’t even name a single reason why

      ** I have been an Early Bird since birth… I have seen most of the sunrises in my life. But if you do that in college you won’t have even a semblance of a social life

  • ShannonEntropy

    Wow Justin… your life must be Holy Heck right now

    At least you try… Me, I’ve taken The Honk Pill
    [ I won’t re-post that vid of The Joker / Honk Pill ]

    Stay Strong & Carry On, hermano !!

  • bagida’wewinini

    “Those who benefit from chaos and from a lower bar for behavior must be convinced that it isn’t their interest to continue doing that which brings them immediate advantage. “

    You should be directing this statement with which I agree to President Trump.

    How many members of the current Tiverton Town Council were or are now members of the various organizations you have also been a member directly associated with the town?

  • Billy mac

    Justin Katz the narcissist forgets to mention that there are lawful rules in place to remove those who would run for elected office to push personal agendas at any cost including in opposition to the will of the people, when they are called out on it and continue to abuse their positions to help their friends and not the people they should be removed by lawful actions such as recalls, to violate the trust of the people and cry foul when they choose not to tolerate lier’s, and deceptive actions is the hight of hypocrisy , politicians should work solely for their constituents not for their ego an friends

    • ShannonEntropy

      Yikes !!

      What a mess of a post… one giant run-on sentence; multiple misspellings; an incorrectly employed apostrophe; improper punctuation…

      … but I do agree with yer basic point, to wit:

      “…politicians should work solely for their constituents not for their ego an friends”

      It seems to me that Justin is trying to do exactly that — “work solely for [his] constituents” — and he is trying to right the wrongs & damage previous town councils have inflicted on its citizens

      The fact that he and everyone else in Tiverton would benefit from his goals is precisely why he got elected

    • Rhett Hardwick

      Without mentioning it, this post reopens the eternal question. In a representative democracy, does the elected adhere strictly to the expressed desire of the constituents, or, exercise his own judgment?

      • Justin Katz

        I think it’s got to be a balance, which is what the “representative” in “representative democracy” is supposed to bring. For one thing, the “expressed desire of the constituents” isn’t so obvious and can be measured in different ways, so we settle on regular elections that will be the decisive determinant of the will of the people.

        For example, when Billy Mac refers to the Tiverton Town Council not following “the will of the people,” he has in mind two instances in which a couple dozen people went to the town hall to speak against a decision the council appeared about to make. Is that the will of the people? I don’t think so, for a number of reasons.

        We know from past history (and current experience) that a small but loud group of people in the town is willing to say anything about anybody, and therefore create disincentive for visible involvement. At a meeting, they shout people down and jeer at them. Thus, one reason for the People to elect certain candidates is trust that they’ll withstand the onslaught and do what the People elected them to do, even in the face of the noisy dozens.

        • Rhett Hardwick

          What I meant to say, but better stated.

  • D. S. Crockett

    While my confirmation bias might be at play, isn’t the Left responsible for our decent into totalitarianism? I’d say this is true on both the local and national level. Somehow, Justin, I don’t subscribe to ” both sides play tit-for-tat” since the tactics and methods of the Left are plain to see by those who posses rational thought. The question arises how can responsible politicians reverse the decline before everyone except the Left checks out?

    • Justin Katz

      The “tit-for-tat” is only one of the possibilities that I mention. The other is one-sided respect for rules and process, which may only be a slower route to the same end result of frustration and violence. I’m not sure how to make that work, unless enough people across the spectrum are willing to insist on it, which for many will mean giving up the immediate advantage in cultural and political battles.