A blog by Barry Edelson

The Governor is a Fruitcake

So How Did He Get Elected—Twice?

In the annals of representative democracy, the unanimous vote is a rare event. Certainly, there are ceremonial acts approved by acclamation, such as designating the mosquito as the state insect of New Jersey, or declaring the third Tuesday in April as Sauerkraut Day in Milwaukee. But on matters of consequence, there are few instances when an elected body expresses the will of the people without the faintest whiff of dissent. Only in dime-store novels and Hollywood movies are matters ever settled so decisively.

Rod Blagojevich's dismissal as Governor of Illinois must surely rank as the most thorough repudiation of an office holder in American history. Watching every one of that state senate's 59 members denounce him was a spectacle we are unlikely to witness again in our lifetimes. Few legislative actions could bring the degree of satisfaction that came from knowing that, even among the members of the governor's own party, there wasn't a single elected state representative who would rise to defend him. (The lone vote against his impeachment in Illinois' lower house was cast by a Chicago Democrat who said that he didn't feel it was his job to vote to impeach the governor, which proves that knowing what's in the state's Constitution is not a pre-requisite to swearing an oath to defend it.)

The parallel spectacle of the week, that of Blagojevich's talk-show blitz, proved the old adage about being careful what you wish for. All the attention he garnered from the news networks, which can always be counted on to remind us that TV journalism is the only industry whose standards are even lower than those of politics, only cemented his reputation as an unstable megalomaniac. In his futile attempt to win over public opinion, he seem to pull out every cliche defense ever uttered by a politician on the ropes. His only fault, you understand, was that he was trying to save the world. If he had resorted to blaming anti-Serb sentiment for his predicament, it would not have been surprising. Anyone who doesn't think that Rod Blagojevich is in obvious need of serious psychological intervention has apparently been asleep since early December.

We have no one to blame
but ourselves

All of which begs the question: how on earth did this man, who is now universally acknowledged to be unhinged from reality, ever get elected governor in the first place, let alone re-elected? And what about his earlier elections to the Illinois House and to the U.S. Congress? Is the notoriously corrupted politics of Illinois so entangled in the DNA of the state's voters that electing a lunatic is a viable option? This is the most tempting explanation because it is also the easiest. The well-earned reputation of Chicago politicians for nepotism, cronyism and outright criminality makes it easy to lay the blame at the feet of a thoroughly discredited body politic. As someone pointed out recently (it may have been Jon Stewart), if you commit murder you have a lower risk of ending up in prison than if you are elected Governor of Illinois.

And it's not as if voters are given a smorgasbord of choices. Nearly every election in this country boils down to a choice between two career politicians whose primary objective is to gain power and then to hold on to it. Politicians sometimes do good things for the constituents they are supposed to represent, but they do so more often than not because they couldn't get re-elected any other way. If the surest recipe for staying in office was to do absolutely nothing, the vast majority of our dedicated public servants would somehow find it in themselves to manage it. But in the real world, shaking a million hands, making a few thousand contradictory promises, allying oneself with whomever one needs to at any given moment, and acting according to one's self-interest while contorting oneself into unrecognizable shapes to appear to be doing so for the benefit of "the people", is how political success is assured at the ballot box.

A more likely but less flattering explanation is the wholesale indifference of most American voters. We are a largely impatient and apolitical nation. We want our problems solved, at the lowest possible cost to ourselves, and with the least possible noise. If the person in power is perceived to be failing, whether in actuality or because his political enemies have done a good job of making it look that way, many voters will react by simply opting for someone else. Because there are only two viable political parties in America, the only thing most politicians need to do to get elected is to not be the other guy. To the chagrin of party loyalists who genuinely care about issues, there appears to be a growing "middle" among the electorate who decide on a candidate largely because, after giving one side a chance and seeing it not work out, are prone to try the other guys for a change. Whatever positive qualities President Obama may possess as a politician and as a human being, it is sheer folly to think that he owes his election to a sudden tilt to the left, or a sudden flowering of racial harmony. He owes his success largely to the incompetence of Team Bush, who in turn owed their electoral success largely to the vacillating pomposity of the Clinton clan, who owed their electoral success to the fecklessness of Bush the elder, and so on and so on.

This indifference, moreover, makes us vulnerable to politicians of highly questionable ability. That the departing governor of Illinois should reveal that he considered Oprah Winfrey for Barack Obama's senate seat was seen by many as yet another indication of his insanity. Yet Ms. Winfrey is clearly more intelligent than any number of current members of Congress, some of whom unabashedly and regularly exhibit the most stunning imbecility. But if, as a voter, your entire political philosophy comes down to "Any politician will do as well as the next," then any politician is precisely what you are going to get.

It is dispiriting, to say the least, that in the nation that invented modern democracy, we the people are incapable or unwilling to do the mental heavy lifting necessary to make informed choices about our candidates. Blame the media if you wish (for surely they do not help matters) but, in a population truly interested in their government, stories about candidates' haircuts, pantsuits, marital problems and domestic help would be quickly drowned out by the din of people arguing about position papers. One could understand why people in less free societies could be coerced into voting a certain way, or why people with less access to information could form delusional devotions to candidates about whom they really know nothing. In America, we have no excuse but ourselves.

It is in the nature of power to appear immovable until a critical point when it dissolves in scandal or revolution. The degree to which a dictator is utterly detested is difficult to gauge until after his departure, when it appears so obvious as to make us wonder why it was so difficult to get rid of him. The fall of the powerful always reveals the pathetic human frailty behind the throne. Think of the indelible images of the twisted corpses of Mussolini, Ceausescu or Saddam, who, like all despots, claimed to be loved by their people. Or remember the feeling when Nixon finally departed: relief mixed with wonder at how simple it all seemed once it was over. Fortunately for us, we do not have to wait for millions to die before we remove someone who is clearly unfit for office, but we don't often muster the will or courage to do so. A Republican legislator in Illinois said that the impeachment of the governor was not a sad or tragic event, but a good one: it showed that democracy works. If only we started acting less like spectators and more like citizens, it might work even better, and more often.

January 31, 2009

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