Politics & Policy: The Efficacy of Elections in NJ
You know it’s election time when incumbent politicians ask to hear from YOU. This can come in the form of town halls, live streams, or online surveys. It’s an interesting time for those in elected office as the totality of their term, even their entire career, will be boiled down to a few months of what is sometimes called “community engagement”. And while community engagement does not have a strict model so much as it is a framework of guiding principles, strategies and approaches; it is a critical element of effective governance when used correctly.
In NJ, where the County Line still exists on our ballot, incumbent politicians and members of the machine politics that proliferate the region, will utilize the idea of community engagement as a replacement for policy positions. Elections become not about hearing what new, bold ideas candidates have for our city, but rather how many times you see their face or name. Every election cycle, without any sense of irony, politicians will ask you to vote them into a policy office, despite them not offering any insight on what policies will be enacted upon their victory.
Everybody has an opinion. So why is it so difficult to know the opinions of someone in elected office? It is because elections have been purposefully crafted into something completely divorced from engaging in ideas and policy. It’s about how many pictures with young people a candidate can take. How many smiles and handshakes they can give. How many cookouts they can attend or live streams they can publicize. And while none of these things are inherently bad, they should not be misconstrued as a replacement for policy. How difficult is it for an elected official, representing an area with a significantly low average household income, to say that poverty is not some moral failing, but rather the expression of an unjust system and I will make eliminating poverty a priority? How much courage does it take to notice that you represent an area that is undergoing gentrification and tell the electorate that you will do everything in your power to eliminate displacement? If you represent a community that has a majority of renters, would it not be a given that would adamantly fight for renters’ rights and take a leadership role in the kinds of new development that you allow to enter your community? The role, as I see it, of an elected official, is to effectively communicate and implement policy that will positively impact the community they serve and amplify the efforts of community organizers working on the grassroots level. That is surely worth a thousand shares on social media.
It has been said that “politics is dumb, but also very important”. One cannot truly blame members of our community who have become disinvested in the entire political process. They, like the rest of us, see machine politicians run, machine politicians win, and little to no systemic change in their community — though they may get a free shirt, hat, or chicken from all of the theatre. Being a representative is an immensely influential position. It holds real power because the things politicians say and the policy for which they fight has a direct impact on people’s lives. And we live the triumphs and shortfalls of their policy expertise every single day.
There are obvious sacrifices that need to be made by politicians and their families. Campaigning in and of itself is something that is not easy to do and takes a lot of effort. Many politicians try to mitigate these challenges by embracing the machine politics of their area. If one is able to be adopted by the political establishment, their success during an election increases dramatically. Candidates across NJ have, on average, a 35 point advantage when they run on the County Line. Salem County’s Deputy County Clerk explained “A poor guy might be a good candidate, but he doesn’t have a chance unless he’s on the line. That’s kind of the way it is”. Essex County seems to have a similar model. In some cases a candidate will run in an election not with the goal of winning, but to show the political machine that they are worthy of being on their team in the next cycle. In my lifetime I’ve seen candidates who could barely read, write, or generally communicate an idea, win election after election. And I’ve seen lawyers, administrators, and legitimate community activists lose. The only difference in their campaigns is that one was funded by the political establishment and the other was not. Frankly, nepotism and graft would be easier to swallow if those benefitting from either showed competence and an interest in policy.
The challenges we face in our 565 municipalities are no less serious or separate from the challenges we face internationally. Those who hold political office are not there to be our friends, host cookouts, or be given awards for attendance. The practice of “look pretty, and do as little as you can” may have been the attitude of the Reagan Administration during the AIDS crisis, but it cannot be the standard for our representatives in NJ. We can no longer afford the banal vanity of politicians void of policy in office.
Policy is not for everyone, and there should be no shame in stepping down from an office to allow someone else to lead. Someone ill-equipped in policy undoubtedly have other skills that are crucial in our fight. Our communities are filled with talent, all of which are needed to effectively govern. We need our artists, we need our community organizers, we need our writers, our orators, blue collar workers, white collar workers, no collar workers, those critical of the current system and entrepreneurs trying to succeed within it. We need everybody, because everybody has a stake in society. Together we can elect candidates with substance. Ones that demonstrate real goals and a real policy platform. That’s the only way we, as a people, will win.