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.