The 16th District from 20,000 Feet

Posted on May 21, 2012
The Economist wrote about the 16th Congressional District of Texas primary campaign between Beto O’Rourke and Silvestre Reyes.

While they got the big picture right, partly, the problem with writing from 20,000 feet is that you miss the trees for the forest.

Here’s the conclusion of the piece:

It’s possible, perhaps, that the outsized political presence of the tea-party movement has helped obscure a more widespread mood of frustration. It may even be that the tea party’s outsized presence has galvanised some Democrats: for everyone who’s tutting over the decline of polite discourse, there’s someone who’s looking at the tea party and noting that the squeaky wheel gets the grease. The short-term outlook, if both parties are swinging away from the centre, would be more gridlock. If voters on both sides are willing to risk that outcome, it would be a sign that people are willing to take a chance on change.

The first part of the paragraph might be true, and it’s a solid thesis. (Although how “gridlock” in the third sentence translates to “change” in the final sentence.) But using the El Paso congressional campaign as Exhibit A is partly right and all wrong, or partly wrong and all right. The issue here is that people are willing to take a chance on change, but it’s not about fighting the Republicans or a “swing away from the centre,” as the Economist would have it. While the El Paso race may show some outward signs of being part of a national anti-incumbent trend, it has nothing to to with increasing partisanship or even the Democratic Party, and everything to do with El Paso.

O’Rourke might have some policy issues that are considered further to the left than Reyes — for example, supporting legalization of cannabis — but even there the left-right paradigm doesn’t work. Legalization is a libertarian issue, and because of Ron Paul probably has as many if not more supporters in the Republican Party than the Democratic Party, and neither party is prepared to lead on the subject until public opinion goes waaaayyyy over 50 percent. In fact, public opinion could probably be at 80 percent is support of legalization and the entrenched police and prison bureaucracies and industries, along with the moralists, would still beat it back.But I digress.

Like the guy said, “all politics is local.” While elections are becoming more and more nationalized over the last few cycles, El Paso, as usual, sits in splendid isolation. (Read more about how local elections are increasingly influenced by national issues.) The District 16 race involves such a specific set of local factors that exactly what it means cannot accurately be viewed from 20,000 feet. There might be a national meaning to be gleaned, but O’Rourke’s actions once elected cannot be predicted through the lens offered by the Economist, and by far the more important layer of meaning is how it will change El Paso. The Economist correctly identified a forest — the anti-incumbency mood as applies to District 16 — but failed to walk among the trees. Whatever other factors, and even actors, are in play, this race is all about El Paso.

Sito Negron

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