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The Elephant In The Room

Our political incumbents are about as legitimate as my claim to be a Republican.
Phillip Gulley illustrated in an elephant republican mascot looking at a donkey he is sitting on

Illustration by Ryan Snook

NOVEMBER is fast approaching, and with it our biennial opportunity to rid Congress of its whack jobs. Theoretically. In reality, we elect the same whack jobs over and over. In 2020, 94.7 percent of U.S. representatives kept their positions, and 83.9 percent of the senators were retained, even though 82 percent of Americans favor term limits. If everyone who wanted term limits voted against incumbents this November, we’d have a new U.S. House of Representatives by January 3, 2023. If we voted against every incumbent U.S. senator for the next four years, we’d field a new team of those by 2026. In the Hoosier State, Indiana senators serve only four years, so we could shed the current state legislature in just two elections, a cheerful thought that fills me with hope.

Given the low esteem in which legislators are held, it’s amazing so many are returned to office. In a recent AP poll, 85 percent of Americans believe our nation is heading in the wrong direction, yet if history is any guide, we’ll continue to elect the same whackos who got us here. In no other field of endeavor are incompetents retained with the regularity of politicians. When coaches have one losing season, they’re often sent packing. Doctors who kill their patients are stripped of their licenses. If a quarterback has a bad year, he is immediately traded, usually to Jacksonville. But Mitch McConnell, Paul Gosar, Chuck Schumer, and Nancy Pelosi—who daily remind us that incompetence is bipartisan—are returned to office year after tiresome year.

Danville, my home for more than four decades, shuffles the deck every couple of years. An aspiring innocent is elected, usually after promising to rid the town’s leadership of good old boys. They begin their term hopeful and optimistic, but in short order make a decision the rest of us don’t like, usually involving snow removal, town growth, or potholes. My own father, who served on the town board for more than 20 years, was nearly unseated after passing an ordinance forbidding Danville citizens from shooting groundhogs inside town limits.

Our latest election, back in May, pitted a relative newcomer against a perennial candidate whose platform is the same every election: a pledge to return Danville to the 1950s. The newcomer was well-versed on the issues facing our town, having attended every town council meeting for the past several years, an excruciating test of one’s commitment. It didn’t hurt that he was a respected attorney, familiar with town statutes and state laws. But what put him over the top was his part ownership in an ice cream shop on the town square, thereby securing the votes of every ice cream–lover in town. Even so, the race was close, the newcomer winning by only five votes, thereby earning the nickname Ol’ Landslide.

Because there are so few Democrats in Danville, the Republican candidates can’t stoke partisan fears to gain office. Unable to accuse their opponents of pedophilia or socialism, as is common these days in national elections, some Republican candidates with lesser scruples resort to whisper campaigns against their fellow conservative rivals, which is entertaining, but seldom effective. Our minds are made up early and are impervious to change, no matter the rumors.

The number of Democrats in Danville might be higher than suspected, though. Were we able to announce our affiliation privately, instead of having to declare our preference publicly to the poll workers, most of whom we know, Democrats might be nearly as numerous as Republicans. I am as Democrat as they come, a tree-hugging, pinko liberal, but I ask for the Republican ballot so I’ll have someone to vote for in the primary races. When I step up to the polling table every May and declare myself a Republican, the poll workers roll their eyes, knowing my leftward preferences. But it’s a polite town, and though eyes may roll, I am never challenged for my electoral fraud.

I became a Republican because my father was one, and his father and grandfather before him—all members of the party of Lincoln. I stayed on for many decades, out of respect for Richard Lugar. With him gone, I’m mostly in it for the ice cream. 

Philip Gulley is a Quaker pastor, author, and humorist. "Back Home Again" chronicles his views on life in Indiana.

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