Albany: A Hard Rain's Gonna Fall
New York State Senate Republicans should be held to account for unanimously electing as Majority Leader a man who is currently under FBI investigation for his ties to an allegedly crooked businessman. But the Albany swamp is a bipartisan problem. And it's triggering disgust among grassroots activists in both major parties, as Stuart Mirsky's post at Urban Elephants demonstrates:
If one aspect of our political system is incumbent collusion as exemplified by the Serph-Audrey axis in Queens, the bigger problem resides in the voters' preference for political largess over change. [...]
[A]s long as they care more about pork in the pocket than making government more efficient, accountable and intelligent in its priorities, we wonâ€™t see real change any time soon. It's not enough to hold elections every few years. You have to have a system where change is possible. And that means voters have to want it.
Our current system advantages incumbents, not least of all through those infamous member items, while insulating them from accountability by arcane legislative practices and the use of semi-governmental public authorities for debt creation. But, as we have seen, these things, besides making for awful governance, also make corruption commonplace. As Nelson Denis wrote in The Sun, "Statistically, New York State legislators are more likely than members of the general population to be engaged in criminal activity." [More after the break]
But you can't condemn corruption if you're part of the problem. When voters send ethically and legally compromised incumbents back to Albany again and again, and when they consistently vote for politicians on the basis of a history of local largess rather than sound policies and track records, how can they complain when they are badly governed and excessively taxed to pay for it? Or when political parties collude to deny them real choice?
I'm sympathetic to Mirsky's frustration but I'd suggest it's more productive to put the focus elsewhere. While, of course, voters are certainly responsible for sending corrupt politicians back to Albany, it's pointless to rant about the public's fecklessness: what are we going to do about it?
Bad politicians get sent to the Legislature because no normal person spends a minute of his or her time thinking about the Legislature. Member-item pork and incumbent collusion determine elections because that's all there is. While voters might expect more in principle, in practice the expectations for Albany are so incredibly low that it's exceedingly difficult for insurgents to capture enough imagination to win. In these races, there's no imagination to capture. In a large sense, the do-nothing culture of the Legislature is exactly what gets legislators re-elected.
The public does want change when it can see how change could be accomplished. The record-setting vote total achieved by Eliot Spitzer is evidence enough of this. One day, some smart legislators or candidates are going to figure out how to raise the public's expectations of Albany - the blogosphere will likely figure into this - and when they do, they're going to storm the Assembly and the Senate just like Spitzer stormed the Governor's mansion.
Democrats, are you listening? If it's not you, it'll be the other side.