Thursday, October 23, 2014

Incumbency Is Not Forever: The Difference Between A 'Nobody' And A Congressman Young Is Just Votes

The way labels affect how people treat each other has always fascinated me.  When I was a doctoral student and teaching my first graduate classes, I tried an experiment that was very revealing, though not completely successful at first.

The Experiment 

I was young and I looked younger.  I came to the first class and sat down just like all the other students.  I had arranged for someone to come in and say the instructor asked that the students divide into groups of four and talk about what they expected from a graduate class.  I went off with one of the groups as though I were an MPA student like everyone else.  Which I had been until just a year earlier.

When we got back into the class, there was a discussion led by the students.  My voice was not given any more deference than anyone else's and a few people vigorously disagreed with what I said.  When I tried to transition from the exercise to getting the class to move on, students resisted.  Finally, I went to the front of the class and declared I was the instructor.  Some people laughed.  Others told me to sit down. Slowly, my identification and status in people's heads changed.  I apologized for the deception, but said I couldn't think of a better way to make an important point.   How we treat people is based on all sorts of labels and social instructions we get.  I pointed out I had been a masters degree student not long ago and that I wasn't much different from any of them and that's how they treated me at the beginning of class.  But now that they learned I was the class instructor, they treated me differently and thought about me differently.  In reality, I was the same person.  But in their heads I was a different person. 

Most of the students got the point and took it in the spirit I intended: it was a learning experience about how we know things and treat people.  But one student, who refused to even give her name when I asked everyone to introduce themselves, went to the dean to complain.  She was sure that I would retaliate against her for things she said when she thought I was a student.  Fortunately, the dean knew me and he convinced her my intent was good and to stick with it.  At the end of the semester she invited the whole class to a party at her house.

I tell you this story because we think of people in special positions - teachers, police officers, doctors, elected officials - as somehow specially anointed.   And in their roles, they do have some special authority in certain areas and we are expected to give them deference consistent with those roles.  And they are expected to fill those roles with an appropriate level of dignity and respect. But the special stuff applies only when they are acting in those roles.  The rest of the time, they are just human beings like the rest of us.

Alaska's Congressional Race Between Don Young and Forrest Dunbar

I say all this because Alaska has a Congress Member who has been in that role since 1974.  He's been the Congressman from Alaska for the lifetime of both my kids.  But, he's just a human being, though it appears that he no longer sees a difference between his official role and his private self.  And he doesn't particularly stick to the level of decorum expected of a Congress Member.  In fact, he's a pretty fallible human being as he most recently demonstrated at Wasilla High School.

Yet despite his bizarre behavior over the years, Alaskans have continued to reelect him.

Partly, because he is a pretty smart guy, who has been able to pull himself together when it counted.  When he debated Ethan Berkowitz in the US House race in 2008, for example, he had facts at his finger tips, he was charming and funny, and he handily took the debate, much to many people's surprise.  He wasn't the bumbling clown some expected.

But I also think that voters are dazzled by the pixie dust that transforms incumbents into a special, superior species.  But they are just normal humans, with more power.

This year Young's opponent, Forrest Dunbar, is an extraordinary, ordinary human being.  But a lot of people looking at him might think, well, ok, but he's nobody. How can he transform into "Congressman?"  That just means they haven't done their homework and found out who he is.  After all, there was a time when Don Young was just as 'nobody.'

In fact, all of the next ten presidents of the United States are now alive and many, if not most, are living their lives as relative 'nobodies.'  You could probably set up lunch dates with most of them.  They are just people.  But at some point they will morph from just people into "The President."

 The 'nobody' who is challenging Don Young this year is just like you and me - some guy from Alaska.  And if he were elected, he'd stay a genuine guy, I'm sure.  He's like me in class as a student, before I became, in their eyes, the instructor.

Here's what the Alaska Public Media said about Dunbar:

He spent his pre-school years in the Yukon River town of Eagle, cutting his teeth on caribou while his father worked as a Fish and Game biologist.  After the Exxon Valdez oil spill, the family moved to Cordova, where Dunbar says they had running water for the first time. . . 

Dunbar spent summers working on a commercial fishing boat and was an exchange student in Japan. A high school teacher, Tim Walters, remembers him as determined.
“Forrest was intense. And he was serious,” Walters says.
He says it was obvious, even then, that Dunbar was going places.

“In a teacher’s career, there’s usually a handful of students that really kind of stand out, that ‘Some day,’ you say to yourself, ‘they’re going to be on the cover of Time magazine.’ And Forrest was one of those kids,” Walters says.

Dunbar went on to an East Coast education:  Undergrad at American University in Washington. Harvard for a Master’s in public policy, Yale for law school. He fought wildfires out of Fairbanks for a summer and served in the Peace Corps in Kazakhstan. He was an intern for then-Sen. Frank Murkowski in Washington. He worked for Guam’s delegate to Congress. He worked in the Alaska Office of Public Advocacy. Last year, he joined the Alaska National Guard, as an officer and an attorney — a JAG.
He's a pretty special 'nobody.'

People vote for Young for all their own special reasons.  But if anyone is thinking, "yeah but the other guy's nobody" well I'm writing this to say
  1. Everyone is nobody until they suddenly become somebody - as I was just another student in my class until I became 'the instructor'
  2. Don Young was nobody until he got elected
  3. One day, a nobody will replace Don Young
  4. Forrest Dunbar is one perfect candidate for Alaska's sole US House seat - he was raised in rural and small town Alaska, he was educated in some of the best universities in the US, he's got experience in Washington DC, and he's got international experience.
  5. Dunbar is far, far better prepared to be a Congress member than Young was in 1973
Young has criticized Dunbar as immature.  I think he was referring to his being only being 29.  But I'd point out that Alexander the Great was 32 when he died and Jesus was 33.

Don Young's recent arrogance at Wasilla High School should convince people that he really needs to retire.  'But what's the alternative?" 

I'm here to assure folks that we have a very viable replacement who would change our lone Congress Member's office from an embarrassment to the state to one that will bring honor to Alaska.

It's all a matter of people getting their head around the idea of what makes a nobody a somebody.

Incumbency Is Not Forever

And that change can happen.  Here's an example from the LA Weekly Voter Guide:
A year ago, Lee Baca was considered a favorite to win re-election to a fifth term as sheriff. Historically, incumbent sheriffs have needed only to be able to fog up a mirror in order to win. And though Baca was beset by scandals in the county jails, it was an open question whether voters would care. How times change. After 18 sheriff’s officials were indicted last December, Baca was forced to resign.

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