Sunday, September 22, 2013

Political Agoraphobia

Inquirer writer Thomas Fitzgerald made a nostalgic pitch for Ed Rendell's return to City Hall. Of all the word's in Fitzgerald's article, one that wasn't mentioned was "frustration," the one word that encompasses why anyone would seriously entertain the notion.

In all fairness, Fitzgerald does refer to the political nostalgia surrounding familiar candidates, or even names. But he doesn't explore why it's happening.

Philadelphians are frustrated. Pennsylvanians are frustrated. Americans are frustrated. Yes, even Earthlings are frustrated.

These are frustrating times. But they're also new times. 

Whether or not you think Rendell was a great mayor, corrupt, or just plain bad, write a book about him. What our mayor did from 1992 to 2000 isn't relevant in the scope of today's Philadelphia. It's a different city. 

Voters have become so jaded that many can't even consider a candidate they've never heard of. Democrats who don't like Rendell would likely vote for him, even in a primary election, simply because a familiar mayor - good or bad - is better than the fear of the unknown. How frustrated do we need to get before that changes?

When writers like Fitzgerald aren't looking for candidates through their rose colored glasses, they're looking at our corrupt City Council for the least corrupt to put up against a Republican sent to the podium to lose.

This political agoraphobia is echoed at all levels of Democracy, in every country plagued with the demons of political bitterness. How many times will Russian voters allow Vladimir Putin and Dmitry Medvedev to swap places? As soon as Hillary's too old to run, will we be pitting Chelsea against one of the Bush twins? 

What are we afraid of?

Will Philadelphia collapse upon itself if we elect someone who isn't familiar enough with our institutional corruption to be a part of it? It's sad that keeps running articles about Philadelphia's doomed future as the next Detroit, yet can't hold a political discussion about a candidate who isn't recycled. Detroit's last mayor had a familiar name and look how that worked out.

Our mainstream news outlets can't talk about viable politicians like Tom Knox and Sam Katz without giving a nod to the frustrated Philadelphian, assuring us that these outsiders don't stand a chance.

Instead of exploring candidates who bring a new voice to the city, the media focuses on rogue candidates like Pia Varma or Larry West who entered their races to make statements about the internal corruption of our political machine, not to win. Instead of focusing on their messages, the media told fear ridden voters, "if you vote outside the box, this is what you'll get."

The media and the local political structure have taken that message and expanded it to anyone unfamiliar, no matter how boringly reasonable the candidate is. wants you to think that Sam Katz is synonymous with Pia Varma. City Hall thanks them, and picks out the next mayor like they're deciding what suit to wear on an idle Tuesday.

Rendell fans might think they loved him thirteen years ago, but everyone's fooling themselves if they think they didn't hate him as much as they hated any mayor in charge. The same goes for Clinton, Reagan, Rizzo, and someday, Obama. The only thing anyone loves about a politician is their election campaign and history.

The one reason anyone wants Rendell to be mayor is because he's not Nutter, or simply not now. Rendell may be a better mayor than one of the cronies in City Hall, but what does it say about voters when our only expectation is that a candidate be "better than" a potential disaster?

Rendell is better than a lot of people, but a lot of people are better than Rendell. We know that the next mayor will likely be appointed from City Council, so in that context, Rendell is inspiring. But the only reason he's a beacon of hope is because the Democratic party looks at Philadelphia as a city it already owns. 

Why would the party waste quality stock on a city that continues to elect itself? The party has become the city's slumlord. The bigger question might be, why do local Democrats continue to apathetically respect that?

On a more transparent level, the problem with looking at retired politicians for anything more than a biography is that we attribute everything from that era to them. Philadelphia got a lot better during Rendell's time for a lot of reasons. The national economy was on the upswing, Communism fell, there was no such thing as a War on Terror, little of which had anything to do with Rendell.

It was a more optimistic time. He can't bring that back.

Since 2001, Americans have been convinced that the world is a scary, scary place. In the late 20th Century, change was exciting. We looked forward to new technology, expanded wealth, and unfamiliar politicians. 

When we got a world of change we didn't ask for, politicians took note and elections became scary.

Fans of Rendell can site all the statistics they want, and the foes can follow up with their own. The truth is voters tend to look at pockets of history and embrace the "those were the days" ideal.

When an irresponsible tabloid paints us a glossy picture of what the city could look like if their hero returns, his fans embrace the fallacy that they won't start hating him the day after he's elected.

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