Tuesday, November 8, 2011

It's Election Day!

My lack of enthusiasm about Election Day belies my faith in the electoral process. I hesitate to say this, but I may actually waive my right to participate in democracy this time around. Uninformed people are better off avoiding the polls, and frankly uninformed is just what I am with respect to local politics. In my defense, it’s not for lack of interest, or for a complete deficiency of effort. But since I don’t read local newspapers, don’t have television, don’t really associate with people, and can’t find any local campaign information online, I had actually found it impossible to get a complete account of who is running.

Of course, I have been aware of the major race, the one being discussed by anyone who’s talking about local politics. But I haven’t been able to discern any reason why I’m supposed to vote for one candidate or the other, other than on account of the parenthetical letters that follow their names on the ballot. I attended a terrible play in the last weekend of October, and before it began the director spoke to the audience about his company’s season and then brought up election season as a final comment, and instructed the small audience to “vote Poloncarz.” Most of those sitting around me applauded vigorously, and I felt sort of left out thinking that these people all shared some kind of firm opinion about the office of County Executive, the job that the incumbent has been doing, and the changes that the challenger could bring about.

Despising partisan politics, I was alienated by the tribalism surrounding me in that room. If a person on stage wants to turn the topic to politics, I think the least he can do is say something substantive. I would have actually been really happy with that bit of grandstanding if it hadn’t followed the formula: mention a popular personality; hold for applause; depart the stage. The assumption seems to have been that everyone in that crowd already agreed with him, and that the reason for mentioning it was just to reinforce how right everyone was. Of course, if they all have such a firm basis for confidence that theirs is the winning horse, surely it would have been pretty easy to mention any one particular thing that we could expect to actually change if Poloncarz takes over as County Executive. In absence of any such statement about the issues, I can only assume that they simply weren’t on the speaker’s mind.

His comment probably had about the political effectiveness of a campaign sign, which is a phenomenon I just don’t understand. I’d be all for campaign signs if there was implicit in them an invitation to knock on the door in front of which they’re displayed and ask, “Why?” But lawn signs are never an invitation to court discussion; they just stand there, broadcasting a name that is probably well familiar to all the passersby already, and conveying no information. Each one is purely a declaration of support – a function which I thought was already fulfilled by voting. Every election season in this area, in addition to the wide array of carbon-copied lawn signs, I encounter a handful that are something like six feet tall and eight feet wide. Are these, I wonder, more effective at their purpose than the normal, non-monstrous signs? I can’t help but look at them as an obnoxious testament to the idea that the physical dimensions of one’s political viewpoints are more important than what they are grounded in.

Since I think so much about the social significance of campaign styles and perspectives on electoral politics, I naturally feel bad about my civic engagement apparently being limited or only intermittent, but I think I ought to take ownership of that situation and allow myself a little pride at the fact that I’m not interested in voting for district judges or comptrollers unless I’m personally invested in or exceptionally well-informed about those races. I’m okay with it being a personal rule that I don’t participate in the elections that are based on nothing other than name recognition and party affiliation.

It seems explicit to me that that is the case with at least the current batch of Erie County elections. The term “negative campaign” is tossed around a great deal, so the deeper meanings that might be conveyed by it are sometimes lost. What little exposure I have had to the local elections has been negative campaigning through and through, and of an especially cynical sort. I’ve received a handful of robocalls over the last week or so, and I’ve found that they tend to place all of their focus on the mission of ousting an incumbent or repelling a challenger, to the extent that whom they are running against is presented as being irrelevant.

I’m not exaggerating. The last such call that I received actually discussed how important it was that we keep a particular candidate out of Erie County government and then ended without ever mentioning the name of a challenger. That was the most stunning example of this skewed emphasis, but it’s typical of what I’ve been subjected to during this election season. I receive these calls, listen carefully to them because I’m interested in the platforms (not to mention the damn names) of the persons on the ballot, and when the recorded voice says “thank you,” I’m left listening to silence for a few seconds, like an idiot, wondering “Is that it? Is there any reason why I should want candidate x other than because I’m supposed to hate candidate y?” The kind of negative campaigning that I remember from television ads for national campaigns at least tended to conclude with a statement about what the alternative was.

I’m curious as to whether the exclusive kind of negative campaigning is specifically designed to exploit the culture of Buffalo and its surrounding areas. I don’t see a lot of nuanced political or developmental thinking around here. Instead, the persistent attitudes of both politicians and their constituents appear to be based on the belief that each of the region’s myriad problems have one solitary cause, and that getting rid of it will in itself provide an all-encompassing solution. Is it any wonder that amidst this thinking our local political campaigns treat getting rid of the incumbent as important in its own right, regardless of whether the person who replaces him has any actual solutions?

Of course, my cynical attitude toward Buffalo is showing through, as I know it’s not fair to suggest that that’s any different from the logic that tends to operate on a national level. Whenever things seem bad, we figure we need to get rid of whoever is currently in charge, and when delivering the country from the hands of party A into the hands of party B doesn’t fix everything, we switch back to party A and apparently never collectively wonder if our limited choices or methods of selection are problematic.

Buffalo seems to be taking the myopia and present bias to another level, though, by only running challengers in cases where there is already enough preexisting public frustration. All eight of the district judges that are up for reelection in the region are running uncontested today, except for one who has to content with a challenge from a write-in campaign. There are also no challengers in the races for County Legislator, City Comptroller, and District Council Member. In the last mayoral election, Buffalo’s terrible, terrible Mayor Byron Brown won election at the point of the primary, because the Republican Party put forth no challenger, despite being petitioned for endorsement by at least one would-be candidate.

Call me na├»ve, but shouldn’t the opposition party at least put someone’s name on the freaking ballot, even if they have no interest in spending money on a campaign? Why not allow an ambitious member of the party, in this information age, put his platform up online, shake hands at a polling place, start a political career, and give people an opportunity to express their support for alternative ideas, even if by voting for a candidate that has no chance? I recognize that I am being presumptuous again, but the message that I get from this repeated agreement to not oppose incumbents is that if the person currently holding the job hasn’t caused outrage or demonstrated incompetence, there’s no point to trying to come up with better ideas.

If both politicians and constituents think that there’s no point to that and that there’s no point to campaigning on the basis of ideas in the first place, I just can’t see what the point is of voting today.

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