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The Tentacle


September 13, 2006

Fenno's Paradox

Kevin E. Dayhoff

In the acid acrimony and caustic commentary of today's political arena, many Moms and Dads at the kitchen table are wondering who to trust - or more to the point, in which candidates or political party to place their faith for the future.

Does anybody really care about the average working family anymore?

Of course, at the voting booth level, all politics is local and folks increasingly have abandoned the straight party ticket. They vote for individuals.

Many voters are expressing exasperation with the constant bickering. Many citizens wonder where the families, the people those elected are supposed to serve, fit in the era of the great sweaty Sumo wrestling match over trivialities.

Many voters are waiting, with baited breath, for an outbreak of bi-partisanship and citizen-centered government.

Why? At the local level, one needs to look no further than the last session of the Maryland General Assembly where the "get Governor Robert L. Ehrlich" legislation promulgated by the party in power, the party to which the governor does not belong, became the stuff of black humor it got so bad.

Syndicated columnist Larry Elder explained last October that "Americans are engaged in a "great sorting-out," causing folks to stake out "well-defined, even intolerant, ideological camps."

Peggy Noonan added to the fray when she wrote last fall: "I think that a lot of people are carrying around in their heads, unarticulated and - in some cases - unnoticed, a sense that the wheels are coming off the trolley and that the trolley is off the tracks; that, in some deep and fundamental way, things have broken down and can't be fixed, or won't be fixed any time soon"

This distrust of government - of generalized non-specific malaise at the kitchen table level - has not been helped by the policy of mutually assured destruction employed by people in both parties.

As the excesses of the bitter bickering of past years come to light, many are hoping for a bi-partisan approach in which competing ideas rule the airwaves instead of the competing politics of personal destruction.

One of the unexpected consequences of this epoch of unrelenting negativity is that an increasing number of candidates for political office are at least talking about a bi-partisanship approach to deliberating our country's future.

The role of bi-partisanship will hopefully play a part in this fall's general election. It is beginning to look like the sleeper issue.

Pay close attention to the candidate endorsements between now and November. Often one of the many positive factors cited is the ability to get along with both sides of the aisle.

To be sure, people at the grass-roots level will often not trust institutions - big government, a bureaucracy or big business, but do place their faith in certain individuals in the institution.

In political theory it is called "Fenno's Paradox," which is defined as the dynamic which explains that citizens will often hold their particular elected official in higher regard than they will rate government as a monolithic entity.

Over the years, this has been extrapolated to also apply to the regard in which a particular citizen holds their political party-of-choice over the entirety of how poorly they view politics in general.

Attempting to caustically erode confidence in individuals or the party in power, with the help of a sycophant liberal media has been somewhat successful in developing a synthetic momentum being referred to as the "Democrat Wave Theory." This can be applied to the Maryland gubernatorial contest or the U.S. Congress - take your pick.

At the state level, the Maryland General Assembly has identified itself as a bankrupt organization which only seems to meet every January for the purpose of perpetuating the hegemony of the Maryland Democratic Party.

This is where Fenno's Paradox is due to kick-in - or kick down the doors of the excesses of power. Many Marylanders are bewildered by the lack of attention to kitchen table issues by our august legislative institution, in a crass attempt to do-in the Republican governor.

It has been a bruising number of years. And fatigue is setting-in.

A ground-swell, grass-roots backlash, not identified in the polls, is gelling as many Marylanders have noticed that partisan politicians have focused our attention on a governor who fights for the values that many of us understand in everyday conversation.

Perhaps there is no better time to re-energize an era of competing ideas rather than competing attempts to sell snake-oil.

Examples at the local level abound, but one need look no further than Republican Senate candidate Michael Steele, who in an innovative TV ad looks you straight in the eye and says: "I'll talk straight about what's wrong in both parties."

The great sorting process is due for its final act sometime soon. Hopefully, as the voters look to the November election, they will start to take a good look at candidates who talk about competing positive ideas for the future instead of personally attacking the president, the opposition party, or their opponent.

At the local county level, demonizing large blocks of our population, such as the "evil developers and real estate professionals," is also a non-starter.

Hopefully Fenno's Paradox will ensure that we start re-building the public's faith and confidence in government institutions by electing people at the local level who understand that institutions cannot succeed if individuals fail.

Many realists are not holding their breath, but the alternative is not sustainable; and we all know that positive change can happen and we can make it happen in the voting booth by electing people who want to put the wheels back on the trolley.

Kevin Dayhoff writes from Westminster: E-mail him at: kdayhoff@carr.org



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