Politics, partisanship, and democracy

My thoughts and prayers go out to all the CoOp family (including my own family in NJ, NYC, and Long Island), friends, and readers dealing with the effects of Sandy. I hope you all are safe and that you have your power back soon. I want to consider two things with respect to Sandy’s effects on next week’s election.

First, folks are beginning to talk about how the storm will affect the mechanics of the election and whether state and local governments (who wield exclusive authority to administer the electoral process) hit by the storm will be ready and able to carry out an election, both with early voting ongoing this week and Election Day itself next week. This has lead to discussions of whether the election could or should be delayed, either by congressional action or by unilateral actions of individual states or localities. Here is some good analysis of the constitutional and statutory issues involved. Rick Hasen argues that this again demonstrates the need for Congress to create a uniform national scheme to respond to natural and other disasters that affect voting. Hasen calls this another example of Congress failing to act on what should be non-controversial issues resolvable with non-partisan solutions. He compares congressional inaction here with congressional inaction on ensuring continuity in the House of Representatives in the event of a terrorist or other attack.

Actually, though, the current situation brings to mind a different concern on continuity of government, a subject on which I wrote in my early scholarship. I have argued that if we ever get into the statutory line of succession (below the Vice President), we should hold a special election as soon as practicable (within 3-6 months, for example), so that the ultimate recovery from a mass catastrophe can be lead by a popularly chosen executive. But  I may have to rethink that, depending on how things play out in the next week. If a bad storm affecting five or so states can hamper a national election, it may not really be possible to hold one a few months after a catastrophic attack on the nation and the government itself.

Second, when asked about the election, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie responded as only he can: “I don’t give a damn about Election Day . . . This administration, at the moment, could give a damn less about Election Day.” Now, obviously the first concern must be ensuring public health and safety, getting roads and debris cleared, and getting the power back on. But Christie’s bluster reveals an unfortunately blase attitude about the election and thus about democracy. It suggests that the election is not important; it is “partisan” and “political” and thus not what we should be thinking about in times of high-minded crisis, when we should put our differences aside and come together, and blah blah. It is the same attitude reflected in 2008 (the last time I guested here) when John McCain called for a suspension of the campaign and cancellation of the debate so he and then-Senator Obama could return to Washington to work on bailout legislation.

But, as I wrote four years ago, elections are the procedural element that most fundamentally identifies our socio-political system as democratic, as a system in which here, sir, the people govern. Partisan politics describe and define the process by which we select the “immediate representatives” through whom the people act in governing themselves. And elections work through a two-party adversarial process.

Thus, inability to carry out an election is no small thing and should not be treated, or discussed, as such. It would be no mere minor inconvenience if New Jersey or New York is unable to administer elections next week–or unable to efficiently administer elections in which those who want to vote are able to do so. It would be a genuine problem about the functioning of a supposedly democratic national government. Alternatively, if we really believe that we must “come together” and put all electoral conflicts aside and not concern ourselves with an ongoing election, then Hasen is right that we must establish mechanisms to postpone the whole thing or otherwise alter the rules. We should not ignore the problems or let the election go forward as planned and simply accept sub-optimal processes in those places still recovering from the storm.

Again, the election should not be the top concern at this moment, either for the people trying to recover or for the governments trying to help them. But neither should the election be pooh-poohed as an unimportant triviality beneath government concern.

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7 Responses

  1. Brett Bellmore says:

    He’s clearly taking the right attitude. Outside of a few disreputable areas of the country, one must be alive in order to vote. So keeping people alive, first, must be his priority.

    The election is next Tuesday, there’s time to concern himself with the election over the weekend, once the storm is past.

    This is not a matter of being blase about the election, but rather not being blase about human life.

    Yes, it would be good to have some mechanism in place for when natural disasters make voting impossible. (Suppose the storm had come a few days later?) But the time to work this out is not while the storm waters are still advancing.

  2. mls says:

    I would be surprised if you are consistent with regard to the opinion expressed in this post. Do you scoff when politicians (more specifically, politicians that you like) say things such as “we should not politicize this issue” (which means “this is a bad issue for me so lets not talk about it”) or “my position is not based on politic”s (which means “my position is based on politics but I also want credit for being high-minded”) or “my opponent’s position is political” (which means “I want to focus your attention on my opponent’s motivation, though its probably exactly the same as mine”).

    The difference between these routine statements and what Christie said is that his statement is less obviously self-serving. And while it is true that taken literally it suggests (like the examples cited above) that electoral politics is base and trivial, it could be more charitably interpreted as meaning that the public interest requires that he personally put electoral politics aside and focus exclusively on disaster relief, not that the election is unimportant.

  3. Shag from Brookline says:

    “Leadership” in action, whether by Christie or Obama, differs significantly from the R-MONEY/R-AYN 2012 use of “leadership” over and over and over again.

    While I prefer a fine, aged desert wine, at times it’s any port in a storm, by Christie!

  4. Brett: As you phrased it, I agree. But you said it far better than Christie did. What you said recognizes that the election remains important, but we have a couple of days to get to it. That to me is different than not giving a damn about the election. Of course, he probably deliberately sacrificed clarity so he could drop some semi-profanity and burnish his tough, speak-his-mind image.

    MLS: I scoff anytime I hear *anyone* say those things, because I know it’s all bullshit. So I would be saying the same thing if it had come from Gov. Cuomo. I disagree that what Christie did is less self-serving; Christie is doing all sorts of good for his image and profile (while also, as far as I can tell, actually governing well–the two are not mutually exclusive and I wish we wouldn’t pretend they are).

    In any event, electoral politics are different than *the election* and *the vote*. Even if I accepted the call to rise above partisan politics (I don’t), that is still different than the machinery by which The People vote–that never ceases to be important.

  5. Ken Rhodes says:

    Governors have large staffs, with both general administrators and specialists in different areas. It’s a weak governor who, while putting primary emphasis on the number one priority, can’t also devote some resources (and perhaps even some of his own thoughts) to his other high priorities.

  6. Ken is absolutely right This is a common trope–repeated by many elected officials and candidates (especially non-incumbents) and the media and seemingly accepted by much of the public–that elected officials must always be focused on that one important thing. And if they spend any time on anything else, they somehow are distracted or are not paying attention and thus are not doing their jobs. This was the premise behind McCain’s cancel-the-campaigns-so-we-can-do-the-bailout-legislation move in 2008. And it may be the premise behind Christie’s remarks. To which candidate Obama responded that elected officials must be able to multi-task. But most of the media and the public doesn’t believe that.

  7. Brett Bellmore says:

    Howard, not to put too fine a point on it, politicians are somewhat limited in the complexity of the concepts they dare express, given the media’s habit of “quoting” sentence fragments, and then filling in with paraphrases. (A problem especially exacerbated for Republicans by the fact that most of the journalists are Democrats!) Also given the effective comprehension level of the target audience.

    Christi did well enough given the limits of the genre.