The Power of the Status Quo
In talking to people here in South Portland about the hot local political topic of the moment, the proposal to ban dogs on Willard beach, I've noticed something interesting. If someone is undecided on the issue, mentioning that dogs have always been allowed on the beach usually makes up their mind against the ban.
Forget about the issues (in this case public access rights and local community building) — it's a political truism that the quickest way to get someone on your side who doesn't have strong feelings on an issue is to appeal to their small “c” conservatism. When in doubt, people often default to the status quo.
In other words, if they don't see something as broken, they lean towards not trying to fix it.
That's the reason why the first TV ad of the pro-equal marriage campaign is an appeal to traditional Maine values. Those against the veto referendum want to cast those opposed to gay marriage as wanting to change Maine's fundamental character. That's why their PAC name urges voters to “protect” equality by defeating the attempt to strike down the law.
Even though the ink on the bill is barely dry, for some viewers of their ad, they've managed to fit the legislation into a larger narrative and make equality the status quo. I'm sure the other side will attempt to do the same.
The status quo is even more powerful in candidate elections. In 2006 and 2008, despite big swings to the Democrats, the re-election rate among incumbents in the U.S. House was 94 percent. In more than forty years, the incumbent re-election rate for that chamber has never dipped below 85 percent. Some of this is obviously accounted for by weaker challengers and easier fundraising for office holders, but a big part of it is the fact that these politicians have become the status quo.
Term limits have worked to infuse Maine's legislature with a bit more fresh blood, but in the last forty-seven statewide and congressional elections stretching back thirty years, only three incumbents have failed to win re-election.
It's only when the status quo becomes completely untenable that tectonic political change can occur. During the 2008 presidential election, for example, public opinion of George W. Bush and the Republicans had obviously reached this point.
A majority of the American people have also reached the conclusion that the health care system in this country no longer works. There's a significant number, however, who have good, employer-provided insurance or coverage through the VA or Medicare, who can see the systemic problems but feel that their own personal status quo still works. These are the voters that both sides are attempting to appeal to. Barack Obama is assuring people that they will have “choice” and, if they like their current plan, can keep it under his policies while still fixing the lager problems. Some Republicans are spreading lies about “socialism” and “death panels” in an attempt to raise enough fears about change that people will choose the devil they know.
It's not as obvious as ideology, money or thirty-second ads, but the strongest force in politics may be the status quo.