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Democracy, The Power Elite, And The State Senate Race

This piece took me a flippin’ month to write and it’s awfully long. So here’s an abstract, by way of summary.

ABSTRACT: We’re all thinking about the Kinnaird/Foushee Senate/House appointment process as some kind of strange aberration, but it’s not. “Democracy,” even in Orange County, is always elite-driven, far more so than we like to admit. This Senate/House thing isn’t an exception to the rule—it IS the rule, with all the pretense stripped away. (Is that bad, though? Not necessarily. Because, after all–well, read on.)

“Marvelous thing, democracy. Look at Manchester: population, 60,000; electoral roll, 3.”
                        -Edmund Blackadder

Election Day was last week, y’all!

(No worries if you missed it. Only three people got to vote.)

There’s the great irony of this whole State Senate kerfuffle: Ellie Kinnaird resigns so she can launch a crusade to make sure everyone in North Carolina is able to vote—but lo, legislative vacancies are filled by appointment. So Ellie’s resignation means our next State Senator was chosen by a committee of three—it was supposed to have been four, but fittingly, one of them was ruled ineligible at the last minute—and everyone else in the district had no say at all. That’s about 200,000 people effectively disenfranchised. (200,001, if you count that last guy.)

And then the committee chose Valerie Foushee, already a sitting member of the State House—so now the process begins anew to fill her seat, with all the power imbued in another itty bitty committee, and another 80,000 or so left out.

(You know the folks at ALEC have gotta be kicking themselves they didn’t think of this first.)

Still, for a few weeks there we saw a pretty faithful simulacrum of a real election, with all the campaignin’ and politickin’ that entails. Facebook pages for this or that candidate, long online debates—heck, just about everything short of yard signs down 15-501. There was even a poll—who commissioned it?—with Foushee running second behind Mark Chilton, 23-16. Alice Bordsen, Ellie’s handpicked would-be successor, ran third with 14 percent; and then there were four other candidates as well, with little to no sizable public support.

Not that any of that mattered on Election Day itself, when the Gang of Four (sorry, Three) met in Pittsboro to cast the only votes that counted.  Chilton, the public frontrunner, was never a factor; Bordsen, third in the polls, failed to impress; and Foushee’s strongest challenger turned out to be one of those “other” candidates—Amy Tiemann, whom 81 percent of voters said they’d never even heard of.  Tiemann actually tied Foushee on the first ballot, 1-1, with the third voter splitting his vote between them; if that third voter had gone for Tiemann instead, we’d have had the upset of the century.

(That third voter was Don Knowles, by the way. You probably haven’t heard of him, but he has way more power than you.)

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As it is, the Upset of the Century honor still rests with Alabama Avenue’s 2012 defeat of Family Dollar. (Marking the only time this century that an Alabama victory has been considered an upset of any kind whatsoever.)

Did the committee make the right decision? Sure. Maybe. Each of the major candidates took a unique stance on how the NC Democratic Party should react to the state’s rightward lurch, so it was a pretty fascinating debate. Chilton (and to a lesser extent Tiemann) cast themselves as firebrands who’d use the seat as a bully pulpit to grow the progressive movement and take back the General Assembly in some golden future time; Foushee cast herself as someone who could work with the GOP to make sure Orange and Chatham don’t get shafted too badly today. (“Small wins,” as James Barrett put it.) Every social movement in history has faced that same dilemma—do you accept minor gains now at the expense of complete victory down the road, or do you sacrifice your immediate interests to put all your efforts into winning the big prize in the future? The Chilton-Foushee debate mirrors Karl Kautsky versus Eduard Bernstein, W.E.B. DuBois versus Booker T. Washington, Barry Goldwater versus Nelson Rockefeller. Hindsight’s 20/20 in all those cases, but the same side isn’t right every time—so it’s always a very difficult choice you have to make.

Sorry, I was saying “you” there for a second. As if you had a choice. Peh!

You had the choice made for you last Sunday, like all the rest of us plebes.

Not that I’m complaining, really. Frankly, I’m glad I wasn’t on that committee. For one thing, imagine the overage charges from all the calls I’d have gotten from voters trying to sway me this way or that. (I’m a total introvert anyway. I already talk to enough people as it is.)

More than that, though, I’m just relieved not to have had to make that hard choice. Oh, it’s straight-up democratic despotism, I know: this is exactly what Tocqueville meant when he warned that even a democracy could turn tyrannical, simply by making people so comfortable that they’d just sink into their sofas and stop caring about politics.

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Or sink into their sofas and start caring about politics of a different kind.

So yeah, I know the risks. But I’m still content. I liked all the candidates, more or less. So whatevs. Leave it to the Gang of Four. (Sorry. Gang of Three.)

And in any event, whew, at least this non-democratic fiddle-faddle is a rare occurrence, right? We do have a real election coming up in November, with candidates and voting booths and yard signs and everything. (I just saw my first yard sign earlier this week. Congrats, Paul Neebe! You were the first robin of spring.)

Plus, man, we live in Orange County, where we got civil society coming out our ears! That was Tocqueville’s prescribed remedy, after all—regular folks getting involved in groups and organizations, working together to improve the community—and good Lord, do we have that here. Nonprofits number in the hundreds, there’s a public demonstration every other week, and so many people show up to address the Town Council that they’re actively brainstorming ways to keep the meetings shorter. Heck, Laurin Easthom may have just concluded it’s less of a time commitment to be a State Rep than a Town Council member. And I’m pretty sure she’d be right.

And goodness, Moral Mondays! Enough said, am I right? Now there’s a real populist grassroots movement, seizing the spotlight away from those suited Tea Party elites and moving our state in a new direction! Risking arrest! Stepping on toes! Stickin’ it to The Man!

Democracy in Chapel Hill: safe and sound. Sure and true.

Except…

Except…

Except…

Pause. Let’s rewind. Take a look at that State Senate kerfuffle again.

How much of an aberration is this, really?

For starters, this is hardly the first time in recent memory we’ve had a legislative seat filled by appointment. It’s not even the first time this year! Just this winter, the Chapel Hill Town Council got to appoint Penny Rich’s replacement, no pesky election required. (Nor even a lot of thought. We all went through the hoo-ha of pretending it was some sort of open question, but let’s face it, we all knew it was going to be Sally Greene the second she threw her hat in the ring.) And that’s only the most recent example. In 2009 the Council appointed Donna Bell to replace Bill Strom; Dan Coleman became a Carrboro Alderman by appointment in 2005; and the most egregious case is in NC House District 56—where Verla Insko has been serving since 1997, when she was appointed to replace Anne Barnes, who was herself appointed in 1981.

(All those appointees did have to defend their seats in actual elections later, of course—but we know enough about the value of incumbency to know that’s not much of a rejoinder.)

But hey, that’s just an occasional appointment every few years. Not that big of a deal, really, not when there are so many contested elections out there. “A small chink in the armor of democracy,” Ruby Sinreich called it on Orange Politics. She’s right.

But we’re not done.

What about those elections?

Try this: imagine if there really had been a public election last week, to replace Ellie Kinnaird.

Who would have won? Chilton, probably, or maybe Foushee.

Why?

Simple: name recognition. Look again at that poll I mentioned earlier. Slightly more than half the voters in Senate District 23 recognized the names “Mark Chilton” and “Valerie Foushee”—not great, but far greater than the other five candidates. (Only 24 percent of voters recognized the name “Alice Bordsen,” and everyone else was even more unknown than that.) Name recognition is everything in electoral politics; without it, you ain’t winning a thing. This is why incumbents tend to get reelected. It’s why we’re doomed to spend the next two months staring at all those bleedin’ yard signs on 15-501. “PAUL NEEBE!” “GEORGE CIANCIOLO!” “AMY RYAN!” Those signs say nothing! Nothing! Why do they even exist? They exist so when you enter the voting booth and look at that ballot, those will be the first names you notice. (Heck, I’ve just given three candidates a slight-but-very-real advantage by mentioning them in all caps just now. My apologies, MARIA PALMER.)

Name recognition: that’s what it’s all about.

But what does that suggest?

It suggests one very important thing: that in democracy—yes, even in democracy—the winners are almost always the elites. We vote for the names we recognize, and the names we recognize are the names we hear in the news, the names we read in the paper, the names of folks who have the cash to litter their town with yard signs and the free time to hop around town littering. In that hypothetical election, Mark Chilton and Valerie Foushee would have finished one-two—not because they were the best candidates (though they may well have been) but simply because their names were the most recognizable. Why was that? Because they were already the powers that be. Taking the choice away from voters and handing it to the Gang of Three actually made it more possible, not less, for a truly grassroots candidate to win that Senate seat: you only had to get in good with three people, rather than two hundred thousand. Would Amy Tiemann have had a chance otherwise? No. Nor would Lynette Hartsell, or Jim Porto, or Heidi Chapman, or anyone else who wasn’t already a big shot.

And let’s take a step back further. Are we really calling Amy Tiemann a “grassroots candidate”? How about Hartsell? Chapman? Bull. Forget the fact that elites always win in democracy: the cost of entry is so high (in money and time) that elites are the only ones who even get to run. This too is by design. James Madison said it straight out in Federalist 10—arguing that a large republic would make it “more difficult for unworthy candidates” to win, and easier for “men who possess the most attractive merit and the most diffuse and established characters.” He really is just trying to talk about strong character there—beyond his obsolete eighteenth-century views on race and gender, Madison sincerely was one of the good guys—but even so, “merit” for Madison is at least partly synonymous with “money” and “status.” And so it goes. Even in local politics. Check out those seven folks who ran for State Senate: the mayor of Carrboro, a former mayor of Carrboro, a State Representative, a former State Representative, two lawyers and a wealthy business owner. Not one grassroots candidate in the bunch, and it cost literally nothing to run.

True, there are exceptions to this—especially in local politics, where the cost of entry is lower. (I’m thinking of Tim Sookram, who ran for mayor in 2011 because it cost only five bucks to do—or Mark Chilton, for that matter, back when he was just getting started.) The general rule, though, still applies: even when we do get to choose, most of our candidates—and almost all of the ones who actually win—are already insiders and elites. The system is set up that way.

And we’re not done!

Because not only do the insiders tend to win all the elections—they also control who wins the elections, from behind the scenes. And it’s not just about big Koch Brother-y donations. Take endorsements. What is an endorsement, after all, but “You don’t know me, but you do know this elite insider, and he’ll vouch for me”? Or “Hi, I’m Bigshot McPower, and I’m here to tell you to vote for this guy”? It’s name recognition by proxy. Voters find this convincing. Nothing inherently wrong with that—but it’s also just another way of saying we let elites tell us how to vote. (I fall for this myself. I got a Cianciolo-for-Council mailing the other day, prominently featuring a long list of endorsements. I found it convincing. I might just vote for that guy.)

And I’ll go one step further.

Because democracy isn’t just about elections.

This includes social movements too.

Moral Mondays.

Okay, okay, don’t all jump down my throat at once. Let me explain.

When it comes to politics, we tend to be Manicheans—we think of political conflicts as Good Versus Evil, and we think of political questions as Either/Or propositions, where there are only two possible answers and you’re either all one thing or all the other. In the case of social movements, we tend to assume there are only two kinds: good, “grassroots” social movements, springing organically from the masses and driven from the ground up; and evil, “Astroturf” movements—fake grass, get it?—secretly orchestrated by elite puppet-masters from behind some sinister curtain.

Both of these assumptions are complete BS.

The truth is that social movements—successful ones, anyway—incorporate both elite power and organic mass support. Elites can’t just make a movement happen by tossing money around—they do have to appeal to something that’s already stirring in the people—but on the flip side, a mass movement will go nowhere unless it has elites to fund it, organize it, direct it, and (most importantly) legitimize it by publicly endorsing it.

Remember all that stuff about endorsements from before? What’s true for candidates is true for movements too—perhaps especially true for movements, because let’s face it, you’re talking about thousands of agitated people waving signs and yelling really, really loud. It’s not exactly confidence-inspiring. Not unless you have some good respectable folks standing there with you, reassuring onlookers that all these crazy-looking people have the right idea.

Or to put it another way: successful social movements are neither grassroots nor Astroturf—they are grass, rooted in Astroturf. If we have to use that word.

(This is not a criticism, by the way. This is just the way it is.)

William Barber figured it out. He made sure to get the respectable progressives on his side. Teachers. Ministers. Elected officials. That’s how you sell a left-wing social movement in America. (This video–posted by Barber–captures it nicely: Moral Monday as collaboration between elite progressives and the masses.) Two years ago those same elites patted Occupy on the head and marveled at what a smart young man it was—and stayed the hell away. Back in 2012 you had local leaders clapping themselves on the back just for allowing Occupy to camp out on Franklin Street. You never actually saw them there, of course; that would have been gauche. But now those same people are on the front lines, taking a stand, even getting themselves arrested for the cause! Now that’s an endorsement with teeth.

You want to know the difference between Moral Monday and Occupy? There are a few, but here’s the big one in a nutshell:

Mark Chilton stood up to Occupy in 2012. He stood up with Moral Monday in 2013.

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The tale of two movements. (Pics originally from the Daily Tarheel and the N&O, respectively.) The CVS occupiers were on the far fringes of Occupy, of course, but the contrast is still noteworthy.  Also noteworthy: local progressives cheered him, nearly unanimously, both times.

I don’t know if Moral Monday is going to succeed. It hasn’t accomplished anything just yet. The GOP hasn’t slowed down, and there won’t be an election till 2014. This isn’t a knock on the movement, mind you. It usually takes years for social movements to make real tangible gains. That’s how it is. But if it succeeds, it will be due in large part to the support it got from insiders and elites. Say what you will about Astroturf—it sure can make the grass grow.

By Way Of Conclusion (Finally)

So that’s the thing about elite power: it’s pretty flippin’ powerful.

We kid ourselves into thinking democracy in Orange County is refreshingly populistic, even anti-elitist, and so we get our knickers in a bunch whenever something comes along like this State Senate/State House affair.

Truth is, the State Senate affair is just another iteration of the same old thing.

It is not the exception to the rule—it IS the rule, with all the pretense stripped away.

Way back when I started this long essay, I used the word “simulacrum” to describe the State Senate race.

What is a simulacrum, anyway?

Literally, it just means “an image or representation of someone or something.” A portrait of George Washington, for instance, is a simulacrum of the real George Washington.

But the cool thing about a simulacrum is this: because it’s not the real thing, because it’s just a representation, it’s capable of being refined and tweaked—so it can actually end up being more revealing about the real thing than the real thing itself.

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The portrait shows Washington as calm, fatherly, friendly but authoritative, clearly in control—not the sort of image you get from looking at his disgusting teeth. Of course his teeth are themselves a simulacrum. The real Washington is long gone—not that it matters. Now that we have all these cool representations, it’s almost irrelevant whether he even existed in the first place.

In this case, the “campaign” we saw for State Senate in the last few weeks bore a remarkably close resemblance to an actual election campaign. It wasn’t the real thing, of course—just a simulacrum. But it was a simulacrum that stripped away the fluff, and in so doing revealed a great truth about democracy, a truth that’s always there but usually hidden:

Insiders and elites kinda run the show, y’all.

Not just with this State Senate affair—all the darn time.

In elections, they run the show.

In social movements, they run the show.

(And by the way, folks, if we single out this State Senate affair for special criticism while giving a free pass to everything else—all we’re doing is reinforcing and re-legitimizing their power the rest of the time.)

But here’s the million-dollar question:

Is that…bad?

The philosopher Aristotle, thousands of years ago, argued that the best government was a “mixed” government that combined elite and popular control. The eighteenth-century writer Montesquieu (who inspired America’s Founders) said the same thing. Alexander Hamilton and James Madison, writing the Federalist Papers in defense of the Constitution, weren’t in lockstep with Montesquieu on everything—but they too kept that ideal of a government where public opinion was filtered into policy through the experienced wisdom of insiders and elites.

This is why the U.S. government has multiple branches, each with varying levels of elite and popular control: a House that’s directly accountable to the people every two years, a Senate with a little more distance, a President who’s technically elected by an Electoral College, and a Supreme Court with no public accountability at all.

And we call the whole system a “republic,” a word derived from the Latin res publica, or “public thing.” “Public thing” can have two meanings: it’s a government of the people, accountable to public opinion—but it’s also a government for the people, promoting the public good.

So it’s not just about how our institutions are structured, in other words—it’s also about what they produce. It’s about consequences.

So how about those consequences?

Let’s be honest: when the Town Council appointed Sally Greene earlier this year, that was the ultimate insider choice. It was elites picking one of their own, and making no attempt to hide it. She’ll probably get reelected in November too; incumbents almost always do. But is that bad? How has Sally Greene been, as a representative? How has she voted? What has she done?

Will Valerie Foushee not be a strong voice for Orange and Chatham County in the State Senate?

Has Verla Insko not been a strong voice in the State House?

When Mark Chilton and our other elected officials got themselves arrested this summer, they were throwing their elite/insider weight behind Moral Monday. Was that not a good thing for the movement? Is a little Astroturf all bad, if it makes the grass grow faster? Does it taint the grass?

Was Chilton wrong in 2012, that night he stood up to the occupiers at CVS?

These are all open questions. Personally, I think these folks have been doing quite well—and no offense intended by referring to them as elites. (Besides, I’ve been quoting Aristotle and Montesquieu, so I’d be quite the hypocrite if I used the word “elite” as an insult right now.)

But here’s the takeaway, if there is any: attention must be paid, yes, when political decisions (like the State Senate choice) are made without the people having their say—but we also need to recognize that this is not a rare thing, even in hyper-democratic Orange County. Nor is it necessarily a bad thing, provided we don’t go too far in that direction and fall off the tightrope altogether.

Now. Who wants to go watch another Gang of Four pick our next State Representative?

Wait. Sorry. Gang of Three.

Forgot about Graig Meyer.

http://chapelboro.com/columns/aaron-keck/democracy-the-power-elite-and-the-state-senate-race/