The Democratic View
Extremism in the Defense of Liberty
By Kathy Zahler
I thought this column would be all about the winner of the Democratic primary in the 23rd Congressional District, but that’s what I get for planning ahead. As I write, we are at something of a standstill, with Max Della Pia ahead by a tiny margin over Tracy Mitrano, with 32.4% and 32.3% of the vote, respectively. We face an unusual situation wherein a federal race will be determined by absentee ballots.
So, all of you who thought: Why should I bother?—here’s your answer. Because New York State does not have a system of tie-breaking such as ranked voting or runoffs, elections even at the Congressional level can come down to a handful of votes!
Tom Reed’s campaign manager, who fancies himself a master of dirty tricks, declared in print that it was unsurprising that “with a field of Extreme Ithaca Liberal options to choose from,” the Democrats couldn’t pick just one. This despite the fact that Max is from Owego and Tracy from Penn Yan. (Poor Eddie from Jamestown got tarred with the same brush earlier.) It’s sad that the opposition doesn’t know its own district well enough to differentiate one town from another, but it is unsurprising that Reed, who emulates Trump in most things, prefers a meaningless trope to substantive discourse.
I’m alarmed to be quoting the right-wing Barry Goldwater in my column title, but his statement is surprisingly apt for our times. It was written by speechwriter Karl Hess for Goldwater’s acceptance speech at the 1964 Republican National Convention. Goldwater’s concern had to do with the perceived Communist threat, but his words are worth recalling: “…extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice… moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.”
I would suggest to Congressman Reed and his campaign that resistance to their ideas is not extreme, but rather right, fair, and moral. If he wants to see more moderation from our candidates, he may have to wait a while.
Goldwater’s successor in Congress was John McCain. Both were conservatives who fought against heavy-handed government. Goldwater, like McCain today, would probably be revolted by the current executive overreach.
There was a time after Watergate when it seemed that the executive branch had lost power and that checks and balances might truly be working. That era ended definitively with the Age of Trump. Today, Congress has rolled on its back and put its feet in the air, allowing the executive branch to tickle its tummy on its way out the door to wreak havoc.
Our Founders created a system by which no one branch of government was supposed to have that kind of power, because they understood that such power could lead to tyranny. But the majority in our current Congress seems happy with the current trajectory, and why shouldn’t they be? They managed to hold up an appointment on the Supreme Court to ensure that the current administration could appoint one new right-wing justice—and with the departure of Kennedy, now two. That has led this session to court-approved gerrymandering and union-busting, which in turn damages Democratic odds and funding, which in turn gives certain Republicans potential lifelong seats in the House and Senate. Why shouldn’t they lie back and roll over? Their course is set. They don’t even need to work in order to win.
Congressman Reed is right up there with the rollover Republicans. According to Five Thirty Eight, he has a 96.3 percent score voting in line with the president’s positions. Based on the 23rd Congressional District’s winning margin for Trump in 2016, Five Thirty Eight would predict Reed to vote with Trump only 87.5 percent of the time. So Reed is +8.8 for Trump, rolling back bank regulations, supporting the Farm Bill that decimated SNAP, reauthorizing warrantless spying, delaying implementation of ozone standards, increasing penalties for certain undocumented immigrants, penalizing states with sanctuary laws, and so on, and so on.
So it matters who’s in Congress. The system cannot work without a healthy tension among its branches.
Our nation was founded 242 years ago this month on Enlightenment principles of democracy, liberty, equality, justice, and humanity. At different points in our existence, we have moved away from or closer to those goals. Our current administration is racing away from them at a terrifying clip.
Although the number of 2018 primary votes in the 23rd District was twice those cast in 2012, they still represent under one-fifth of registered voters. Nearly every nation in the world where elections take place has better turnout than we do. Our Founders would be appalled.
Primaries are the closest we come to direct democracy. If you are troubled by our overreaching executive, do-nothing Congress, and backward-leaning Court, and you did not vote, look in the mirror. You are the problem.