It seems safe to suppose that Joe Morelle is fulfilling a lifelong dream today.
It defies reason that Morelle’s imagination or ambitions—while he was a political science student at SUNY Geneseo, or a 24-year-old candidate for the Monroe County Legislature—reflected nothing beyond someday being in the state Assembly, where he has served since 1991. It would be like a young boy daydreaming of being a professional baseball player but never imagining himself playing above the minor league level.
Further, over the 35 years Morelle served in the county Legislature and then the state Assembly, how many times did he wonder—especially in recent years—whether getting to Washington just might not work out for him? Politics can be cruel that way. Timing and circumstance often are a politician’s most savage opponents.
So today, as Morelle, 61, stands with loved ones watching on and is sworn in as a U.S. representative, it must feel for him like a triumph. But for us—his constituents—it’s what happens in the coming weeks and months, as Congressman Morelle gets his bearings and ascertains who he will be in Washington, which should be of most concern.
Washington has a way of trying to change and co-opt the newly elected, and it has a high success rate of doing so. The research of various political scientists and economists working in the field of public choice theory shows it is common for elected officials to increasingly support the wishes of special interest groups as their time in office grows. This is because elected officials generally learn—or acquiesce to the reality—that supporting organized and vocal special interests helps much more to keep them in office and in power than standing with the “indifferent majority” who might believe that spending money on any given special interest request is wasteful.
And books like “This Town” by Mark Leibovich describe how the structure and culture of “the Gilded Capital” serve to quickly teach and re-enforce how intoxicating and rewarding life in Washington can be for the “in crowd,” which requires falling in line and being loyal to one’s party. This kind of loyalty means following the talking points and mimicking whatever level of hyperbole the party leaders have decided will do most harm to the other side.
Unfortunately for what it says about the nation, Morelle’s least risky path to attaining power and longevity in Washington would be to fit in with the town’s customs: support your party in all ways possible, destroy the other side by any rhetoric possible (which to him may feel like a moral imperative given the current leader of the other side), and don’t veer off-script. If his history in Albany is an indication, Morelle will choose this safer path.
After all, in Albany he managed to rise to the powerful position of Assembly majority leader in large measure due to his loyalty to Sheldon Silver. And while Morelle certainly didn’t know that Silver was a crook, he knew that the longtime Assembly speaker ruled through the heavy-handed tactics of a political boss and was a key component in decades of Albany dysfunction.
Yet hopefully, as he learns his way around Washington, Morelle will ask himself: Did I work for 35 years in local and state legislatures to get here just to sound, act and vote like everyone else in Congress? Is today’s Washington what I wanted to personify and perpetuate when I daydreamed about my future as a young political science student?
Idealistic as it may sound, there is a different path and it is one that reflects a consensus opinion that spans the political spectrum. This month a poll from NPR and Marist found that 79 percent of Americans are concerned or very concerned that “the negative tone and lack of civility in Washington will lead to violence or acts of terror.” This figure includes 92 percent of Democrats, 79 percent of independents and 70 percent of Republicans. And no matter who voters blame most for the increasing negativity and polarization (a plurality of 40 percent blame Trump), the majority also appear to believe that both political parties bear blame and need to be part of the solution.
Yet who in Washington is an example of this desired civility? Who is eschewing demonization for making arguments based on ideas? Who is standing up to colleagues in their own party and to special interests that may be natural allies when their tone stokes further cynicism and national division?
It would not be a cautious path to champion and exemplify decency and civility in Washington. It would likely draw some mockery for its Capraesque and naïve connotations. Yet the nation’s polarization and negativity in the realm of politics must be reformed. And as Susan B. Anthony, who was no stranger to confrontation, once said: “Cautious, careful people, always casting about to preserve their reputations … can never effect a reform.”
Does Congressman Morelle have the courage to exemplify civility? Does anyone?
Part of the problem may be one of perception, we’re bombarded with news of lethal tribalism, and of “incivility” (as any disagreement’s automatically branded these days). Not to say I don’t accept there are general trend lines in both of those directions (lethal tribalism and incivility), but I run into many nicer people than I do tribalists looking for my scalp, and, similarly, most people are definitely civil, with “incivility” at some level a stand-in or reaction to what used to be called “vociferous disagreement.”
I don’t want to over-argue the idea that we’re not in dangerous times; what’s probably more useful is to continue the discussion of how to enforce (at least) two ideas:
First, “tribes” aren’t inherently bad. They serve to create commonality of purpose, pooling of resources and surviving exigent circumstances. When I was in Shanghai and needed a cell phone, my buddy took me to a market stall of someone he knew who sold phones, he didn’t have one but he called someone who’d come from his same village who did. That tribe existed by way of geography and diaspora, it was immediate and effective, and didn’t (from what I could see) automatically lead to lethal strife.
And when I was in the Amazon basin (Ecuador) I saw real tribes, small villages living in peace with one another, sharing resources. Hardly an eden — and perhaps tourism provided a surplus of resources they’d otherwise have killed each other to get. But again, from a historical perspective there’s something a lot more subtle at work than the simply idea that tribe=bad.
Second, “incivility” is a term that glosses over the value of disagreement, perhaps reducing the old concept of “strong divergent opinions” down to some misapprehension that we all have to agree, a la safe spaces and groupthink. Disagreement is good, it’s not uncivil. Pipe bombs and death threats are a different story, but we’d be better off with more disagreement in general without that over-the-top behavior.
Thanks for this thoughtful article. Personally, I believe it is neither Capraesque nor naive to aspire. It is American.
Aspiring to civility in politics (and life) is a right. Like all rights it comes with responsibility to model, teach and reward civil behaviors. Conversely, we must ultimately exact a cost from those who persist on the path of incivility. Whether voting with our feet, wallets, Like-buttons, and/or ballots, we ‘believers’ must defend this right.
I don’t know Congressman Morelle, but I hope he reads your article. I also hope he chooses to risk his “in crowd” membership in favor of more valuable pursuits. The resolve of those willing to risk standing apart from the crowd is rewarded. It always has been, and always will be.
I am not sure a career politician is the right person to go to D.C. and stand up against President Trump. I think someone new and fresh would be better suite design for that.
A number of things at work here. In Washington he is a ‘junior’ member whereas in Albany he was a ‘senior’ participant. He comes from a very influential and moneyed state but not from the center of power in that state (Western NY is basically viewed as hicksville by many). Slaughter was the most senior member when she passed and as such wielded power disproportionate to her geographic origins. And he enters a House that will be engaged in a full-on war for the future of our country, a bloody war. That is where his Albany experience may prove useful – he has been engaged in seriously partisan politics for his entire career. He is not going in as an idealist. May we live in interesting times…