Into the Stretch

The Fortnightly Rant for October 8, 2010, from The New Hampshire Gazette, Volume 255, No. 1, posted on Saturday, January 15, 2011.

In just over three weeks every seat in the U.S. House of Representatives and about one-third of the seats in the Senate will be up for grabs. It may sound crazy — in fact, it may be crazy — but once the counting is over, just one-sixth of the electorate will have gotten its way. Here’s the math, based on the results of our last off-year election in 2006.

To begin with, only six out of ten adults are registered to vote. On election day, only six out of ten who are registered bother to show up at the polls. Already we’re down to just a little more than a third of those who are eligible to vote. Finally, since nearly one-half the voters could end up voting for the eventual loser, the winner could be backed by as little as one-sixth of the voting-age population.

That’s alarming enough. Now let’s make it worse by considering another factor in our impending government turnover. Thanks to Duverger’s Law,* our political system is dominated by two parties.

If the parties we have were different, that might not be a problem. As it is, though, we have one party with a well-deserved reputation for fecklessness, opposed by another with a reputation for fierce discipline. Sadly, it is the feckless, disorganized party that takes a sober approach to governance, while the disciplined and energetic party is ideologically opposed to governance in the first place.

What Are The Odds?

The government and the economy are both more beat-up now than they have been in living memory. Joblessness and homelessness are at distressing levels and have been for a couple of years now. Capable and competent government is clearly the bare minimum required to turn this mess around. And what are we likely to get?

The wrecking crew! Nate Silver, a psephologist** whose blog FiveThirtyEight appears in The New York Times, says the Democrats have just one chance in three to hold onto the House. For anyone who remembers the last time a Democrat was in the White House and the Speaker of the House was a Republican, this is a dire prospect indeed. We’re buying stock in Proctor & Gamble, makers of Pepto-Bismol.™

Meanwhile, over in the Senate, Silver says the Democrats have a nearly 80 percent chance of hanging on to their slim majority. That’s good news as far as it goes. Sadly, it goes nowhere.

Silver says the Dems have only a one percent chance of holding 60 seats. Due to the synergistic effects of the Senate’s filibuster rules and Harry Reid’s unfortunate medical condition, i.e., a mysteriously absent spine, a simple Democratic majority would effectively put Republican Minority Leader Mitch McConnell in charge of that body.

If You Say So, Boss

In the arena of Presidential politics the rest of the nation has the good sense to give New Hampshire an influence all out of proportion to our numbers. Sadly, that principle does not carry over to Congress.

In fact the reverse seems true: we only get to vote on our own Congressional delegation, and everybody else gets to tell us who we should elect. This is truer than ever now that the Supreme Court has ruled that the rich and the poor have an equal right to spend as much as they want influencing elections. This would probably be less grating if those giving us marching orders weren’t … well, who they are.

This week an out-of-state organization began a new barrage of TV ads demonizing incumbent First District Rep. Carol Shea-Porter. The ad campaign, which will pour some $75,000 into the coffers of WMUR and some cable outlets, is being paid for by Americans for Prosperity (AFP).

AFP is a tax-exempt non-profit organization registered under section 501(c)(4) of the federal tax code. It allows people who have a lot of money, which would otherwise go to the IRS, to give it to someone else instead. The theory seems to be that if the money went to the IRS it would just be wasted fixing bridges or lowering the national debt. Thanks to 501(c)(4), though, that money can instead be directed to doing something useful, like driving Carol Shea-Porter out of office.

At least that’s how it seems to work for AFP founder David Koch. The fifth richest man in America, Koch came by his wealth the old-fashioned way: he inherited it. For a guy with so much money — $21.5 billion — to shelter from the tax man, Koch turns out to be a relative tightwad.

The big spender among out-of-staters telling the First District how to vote is George Pataki, former Governor of New York. His mawkishly named 501(c)(4), Revere America, has shelled out an eye-popping $739,506 in the effort to defeat Carol Shea-Porter.

What kind of person would throw that kind of money around to interfere with somebody else’s election? Carl Paladino, the Republican party candidate for Pataki’s old job, recently called Pataki a “degenerate idiot.”

If Paladino’s assessment is correct, Pataki is a pretty forgiving idiot. A reporter asked Pataki, a few days after Paladino’s remark, if he would continue to support Paladino for Governor.

Pataki said, “I expect I will.”


* Maurice Duverger, a French sociologist and Professor Emeritus at the Sorbonne, first noted in the 1950s that any electoral system running plurality elections will inevitably be accompanied by a two-party political system.

** Psephologist: One who performs statistical analyses of elections.

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