Anna Karenina’s Pernicious Influence on Democratic Congressional Debates
Uncontroversial congressional debates are all alike; every controversial debate is valuable in its own way.
This paraphrase of Leo Tolstoy’s famous opening line in the novel, Anna Karenina, mirrors a basic law of politics, whose statistical analogue is called the Anna Karenina Principle: there are any number of ways in which a dataset may violate the null hypothesis and only one in which all the assumptions are satisfied) The legislative counterpart: there are many ways to kill a bill, but only one way to pass one. Last night’s Maryland Congressional District 8 Democratic primary debate (video) at the Bethesda Chevy Chase Rescue Squad exemplified that principle – given a certain class of acceptable questions, there are many ways a candidate can damage himself but really only one way to survive; i.e., by returning time and again to platitudes.
I want to make it clear that knowing almost all the candidates, I believe, as many of my colleagues and neighbors do, that we would be well-served by almost any one of the seven who appeared. Some may need more seasoning, or time in serving the community, but we’re fortunate to have a quality class of candidates.
I do not blame the candidates for resorting to cliché. Having been a candidate myself a few times, I know that candidates don’t get to write the rules (at least not on the congressional level) and do their best to hew to their talking points. We, the community of voters, usually make it too easy for them to do that, and I believe it’s ultimately a disservice to us as well as to them. At last night’s debate a number of candidates, in their allotted one minute response time (can anyone really say anything of significance, other than “yes” or “no,” in one minute?), publicly recognized that they were all in agreement. Given that the Democratic community in Montgomery County has seemingly agreed to the core creed of today’s candidates, what’s left to talk about?
As we learned last night, all that’s left is identity politics. Knowing that in advance, the candidates were very effective in making their case, with much more humor than the previous debate on the environment when teeth were bared and challenges to dignity and honor proclaimed.
Amongst the candidates were Kumar Barve, whose family came from India and whose grandfather, Shankar Laxman Gokhale, had a significant role in the creation of television (yes, millennials, there was a time less than a century ago when television didn’t exist. I know it’s hard to believe with today’s OLED multimedia interfaces, but you can thank the Barve family for that). Kumar joked fluently about being a “liberal accountant” whose family has known discrimination, legal and otherwise, and he returned time and again to the acute issue of immigration reform. Will Jawando undergird his comments with his experience as a biracial African-American, and Ana Sol Gutierrez spoke eloquently of her work as the first Latina elected official in Maryland. This left the white candidates – Jamie Raskin, Kathleen Matthews, Joel Rubin and David Anderson – to voice their support for immigration reform by reminding the crowd that we, like them, were once immigrants, too. They also struggled to differentiate themselves in their commitment to women and minorities, with Joel Rubin pointing out he’s the only male in his household, Jamie Raskin reminding folks he sponsored Maryland’s Lily Ledbetter Act, David Anderson talking about the women in his family and Kathleen Matthews, with obviously an easier job compared to the men, describing her long experience as a working mother.
Neither immigration reform nor diversity, however, is a salient issue in helping the Democratic voter distinguish amongst the crowd. One candidate, David Anderson, both opened and closed his remarks by attacking the two putative frontrunners – Kathleen Matthews and Jamie Raskin – claiming that he is the only center-left progressive in the bunch and implying, by contrast, that one is a Trotskyite and the other a Stalinist. Other than Anderson’s combativeness, which actually generated boo’s from the audience, there was a sense of deep camaraderie throughout.
Similar concurrences developed with questions on the budget, “entitlements,” campaign finance and the environment. Nary a difference amongst them, unlike the frisson generated when independent candidate Liz Matory crashed the Progressive Neighbors/Sierra Club debate on September 30th. She asked uncomfortable questions, and the structure of the debate, where candidates could question one another, forced the candidates to think on their feet.
Admittedly, the winner of this seat will not get the “3 am phone call” with the fate of America on the line, but given the near-total dysfunction of Congress it would be nice to know that our representative could think quickly on her feet, with creativity and persuasiveness that was only occasionally on stage at this forum. There are other ways to structure future events – reporters asking questions and follow-ups, more candidates questioning one another, or even a series of Rachel Maddow-style, one-on-one discussions with questioners known for their tenacity in asking tough questions.
The missing element in the debate was discussed by The Washington Post’s Ruth Marcus in her column today (“Bernie Sanders highlights a critical division within the Democratic Party”). Ms. Marcus, reaching back to English lit with Jane Austen rather than Russian lit, talks about the “subtle and more interesting” contest between the governing ideologies of Clinton and Sanders. I don’t think the differences are subtle; I believe the issue of capital in the twenty first century, with the increasing wage and wealth disparities, threatens to tear this country apart in far more significant ways than Daesh (ISIS). And yet those issues rarely came up.
If any community can handle such subtle and not-so-subtle debates, it’s ours. We need to obviate the need for one candidate to beg another to be attacked just so he can get another thirty seconds to speak. Let’s let them really go at it and not only help us make a choice, but set a standard for other congressional districts as well.