Whose Fault, RI?

What Is Political Competition?

True to form, and even at a great distance, former Cranston mayor and candidate for U.S. Senate and current candidate for Colorado governor Steve Laffey sparked an interesting discussion last night on Twitter.  Ian Donnis, of Rhode Island Public Radio, asked Colleen Conley, erstwhile RI Tea Party leader, about the strategy of the Rhode Island right.  The following statement from Donnis is what struck me as especially important: “most RIers are unaffiliated voters. They haven’t been offered an appealing alternative” to the Democrat Party.

What’s interesting is the perspective that the statement illustrates — as if there’s some naturally occurring organization called the RI GOP with lifetime membership and a substantial endowment, seeking mostly to further its own brand.  It’s almost an ontological question, what the RI GOP really is, and few people incline toward ontology.  So, the tendency is to conceive of politics as if it is analogous to other forms of competition, like sports or business.  It is neither.

  • At the end of the day, sports are games.  The outcome really doesn’t matter much at all.  The motivation is mainly entertainment, with some socializing and exercise mixed in.  For professional athletes, it’s more like business.
  • The motivation for business is profit.  Companies compete so that everybody in the chain can make a living, ideally in a way that they find fulfilling for more profound reasons.

The political competition is more a battle of worldviews, and it usually isn’t people’s primary means of expressing what they believe.  How we live does that — what sort of profession we go into, what sort of family we foster, how we spend our free time.

To some extent, therefore, Donnis’s suggestion is akin to faulting a persecuted religious group for failing to produce enough martyrs.

The knee-jerk progressive response to that analogy would be to scoff at the idea that a group that’s likely to contain a high proportion of people who are doing relatively well in life could be classified as “persecuted,” but in the political context they can be.

The media myth is that money and prominence translate into political power, but for that to be the case, it has to be transferred. The transfer could be in donations or public support for somebody else, or it could be a transfer from one area of a person’s life to a new area as a candidate for public office.  As national controversies are currently proving, that transfer leaves them open to attack against their non-political interests.

So, Rhode Island, why would people martyr the parts of their lives by which they mainly express their worldviews for a political lost cause that they can avoid or escape?

Illustrating the News Media’s Culpability

I’m inclined to place some substantial blame on the news media in Rhode Island and elsewhere, mostly because its reportage is in harmony with the narrative of the powerful (the unions, the Democrats, the progressives).  There are many more important examples, but for simplicity and levity, and because it’s of such little consequence, ultimately, I’ll use an illustration from my own experience.

When I ran for school committee in Tiverton (which I did entirely out of a perceived need and despite my expectation that it would be a miserable experience for me personally, if I won), a local woman named Deborah Janick made a big deal about a casual Twitter exchange I had with RI Future founder and Angel Taveras staffer Matt Jerzyk about the geography of the town.  Basically, I’d pointed out that parts of Tiverton more closely resemble burroughs of Fall River than sub-hamlets of Little Compton.

As a resident of my extended neighborhood in the Fall River range, Janick proclaimed indignant offense at my comment.  Representative John Edwards (D, Portsmouth, Tiverton) made a barb of it via social media.  And the local news media covered it as if there was sincere outrage creating a significant campaign controversy.

Unless I missed something, the reporters never mentioned the fact that Mrs. Janick was the treasurer of a new political action committee (PAC) called Tiverton 1st, with her very address in North Tiverton listed on its campaign finance reports.

An inquisitive reporter might also have discovered that one of the more vicious participants in the local debate, Gloria Crist, who pursued with gusto her role unleashing online personal attacks on her opponents, seeking to make them feel hated and awkward in their own community, was a “co-coordinator/chair” of the PAC. Crist works for the school department as a paid drama coach and has never been the subject of any media coverage, that I’ve seen.

Meanwhile, Linda Larsen (wife of Budget Committee candidate Mark) was also a “co-coordinator/chair” and is listed as having loaned the PAC $178.*  Not to be outdone, school committee incumbent Deborah Pallasch and her husband, Marc, loaned it a combined $1,556.  That doesn’t include the money that other conspicuous players in Tiverton politics gave as outright donations.

My point, here, isn’t to complain that the ref wasn’t calling fouls, so to speak.  Except for those being driven out of town by the ever-increasing tax burden or being educated by the teachers’ union that appears to have set the tone of local politics, these matters are hardly of dire concern.

The point is that this is just a small-scale and amateur example of the way Rhode Island’s political culture operates more broadly.  There was probably some bias in the coverage, but the result likely had more to do with the media’s sense of itself as a spectator at a sporting event.

I’ve played a few innings in the position of commentator in the statewide league, so the news was how I was having difficulty on the local field. (Never mind that, to the extent any of it mattered, the fact that it was news at all was the sum total of the difficulty.)

How This Plays Out

In that light, Donnis’s blaming the Republican Party for its plight is like blaming the highly successful businesspeople and military officers who have made and continue to make the decision that Tiverton is not a community in which to invest their lives.  They sell their houses at a loss and move on to other states, not unlike Steve Laffey.

That doesn’t totally absolve such folks of their portion of the blame.  Rhode Island’s condition is the fault of Rhode Islanders — natives, new transplants, insiders, outsiders, and everybody else — and it will not improve until they stop tolerating it. It’d be presumptuous to fault those who’ve been able to leave, but to an extent, walking away from destructive behavior is a form of tolerance.

As for those still here, I’d venture to say that they will not stop tolerating it until the state and local media correctly identify the real power bases in Rhode Island and begin investigating them as journalists are theoretically supposed to investigate the powerful.  If that sort of thing were expected, perhaps groups like Tiverton 1st wouldn’t get away with personally tarring their political opponents in the name of status-quo righteousness.  Or better yet, perhaps they’d never even try, opting instead for civil debate of issues that actually matter.  Tolerance can suggest approval, after all.

At the moment, it appears very much like those who follow Rhode Island politics and government report on it in the way Red Sox fans might cover a series against some inferior team or Apple devotees might cover competing tablets.

Cassandra, Blame Yourself

I know, I know.  If that’s the story I want told, it’s up to me to make sure it is.  Some of us have been trying.  Of course, it doesn’t help when (for example) the Providence Journal spends the first year of the RI Center for Freedom & Prosperity’s existence with the apparent editorial directive to refer to the organization as if it’s a partisan GOP front group.

Today’s paper brings the news that four out of five Rhode Islanders have no idea that the state is preparing to implement a government-run health benefits exchange.  The Center for Freedom & Prosperity spent a good portion of last year warning about the dangers of the supposed healthcare reform. When the exchange becomes reality (wreaking its particular havoc), perhaps we will be to blame, in some sense, for having failed to offer an attractive alternative.

But it’s very difficult to make an alternative attractive when people don’t even know what it’s an alternative to — whether it’s a specific public policy or an entrenched political machine.


* Note: The initial version of this post wrongly called Linda Larsen the wife of school committee candidate (now elected member) Jerome Larkin.  I regret the very sloppy error and thank Mr. Larkin for his gracious correction.  I’d note, however, that the correction has minimal effect on the point being made in those paragraphs.

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