Monday, September 7, 2015
STRADDLE POLL POLITICS IN APPALACHIA
When I was growing up in Knott County KY, I was taught on a daily basis that Franklin D. Roosevelt, from whom I had gotten my middle name had, along with Winston Churchill, saved the world and that the best interests of the working class, poor, elderly, infirm, young, disabled, and minorities lay with the Democratic Party. Later, after I left Knott County for a larger and wider world, I was fortunate enough to meet and be mentored by two other men, Don West and Jim Ferrell, who reinforced the validity of my childhood political learning. During my youth, I was taught that there is no worse form of vermin in the world than a "straddle poll". For those of you who are unfamiliar with the term, a straddle poll is a person who regularly switches sides in elections, jumping from party to party and candidate to candidate based on whim and easily shifting winds of purported change. In my youth, the switches were most often predicated by a flurry of $5 bills and half pints of whiskey passed out within a few days of the election. In my native Knott County, which had been controlled solidly by Democrats for more than a hundred years, such a switch was predicated by thousands of tons of gravels placed on private driveways and roads which resulted in the winning Republican Judge Executive being sent to the federal penitentiary on election fraud charges. And actually, that Judge Executive was following in the footsteps of his Democratic predecessor who had already been tried, convicted, and sentenced on similar charges. Today, I am unable to even find the term straddle poll in my Concise Oxford English Dictionary. When I look it up on Google, the answer comes back with the second word spelled "pole" and describes an artful move by a nude dancer. In some ways, the two definitions are rooted in similar shenanigans or artful moves under duress. In addition to attempting to educate potential voters about the inherent fallacies in independent politics, a major objective of this post will be to salvage the expression "straddle poll" from the linguistic scrap heap.
Today it is not uncommon at all to hear individuals who regularly vote exclaim proudly that they are "an independent and I vote for the candidate and not the party". More than 200 years of American history have proven this belief to be self defeating and unfounded. I know of one county in Eastern KY, Magoffin County, where the court house is regularly occupied by a divided corps of elected officials split between the two major parties and generally unable to agree on anything more than the site of the actual court house. That county has been embroiled in legal disputes over elections for at least five years involving the duly elected County Judge Executive and his narrowly defeated opponent. The case has wound its way through the KY court system and the appeals process has become both highly personal and unending. And, whether the voters ever admit it or not, the turmoil is a direct result of an electorate who are incapable of committing wholeheartedly to either political party for any length of time. It is a direct result of straddle poll politics in both aforementioned counties. Additionally, when local jurisdictions, whether they be counties, precincts or cities, become unpredictable in their voting patterns, politicians and leaders in control of both major parties become distrustful of the electorate and are more and more unwilling to take positive actions to support that electorate and provide the communities involved with the services and infrastructure they need. For many years, Magoffin County KY has been among the highest counties in unemployment in the state in spite of having been crossed by the Mountain Parkway, a major artery for business in and out of Eastern KY. But business executives are often unwilling to commit large expenditures for long term operations in a county where the leadership of the court house in unlikely to remain in place more than one term.
By contrast, Leslie County KY, about 85 miles to the southeast and located along the Daniel Boone Parkway, has been a solid Civil War Republican County since 1865. It is impossible for a Democrat to get elected in that county and it served as the site of Former President Richard Nixon's return to public life after his impeachment and resignation primarily because it has been absolutely loyal to Republican causes since long before the current oldest residents were born. In that kind of safely predictable setting, a former president was willing to step out in public and begin his work to rebuild his legacy as much as possible before his death. And, while Leslie County KY is not generally wealthy, their economic existence is much more stable and predictable because higher level politicians and business executives know that the county is politically predictable. \
My own home county, Morgan County Ky, is currently simultaneously working to recover from a major tornado on March 2, 2012, and the necessity for the federal government to prosecute, convict, and imprison County Judge Tim Conley, a Republican who was elected in 2008 after more than a hundred years of highly predictable Democratic results in the county. The bottom line is that straddle poll politics does not work. It is not any less distasteful if it is called by the misnomer "independent politics" and it will nearly always result in confusion at the court house, distrust by state and national party leaders due to unpredictability, and will always cost a locality in terms of investments, infrastructure, and political capital in state houses and Washington, DC. Or as my father taught me, if you keep jumping back and forth across the political fence, sooner or later you will leave the figurative family jewels hanging on the barbed wire.