Columns » Jay Barth

The good, the bad and the ugly of the election

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Because of our publication schedule, I write this just after casting my vote at Dunbar Recreation Center on Election Day morning before any results are known. Will Arkansas's role as a curious regional outlier end, morphing into a glob of reliably Republican mid-South states? Will a surprising set of Democratic victories leave everyone shaking their heads at Arkansas's continued defiance of electoral expectations? Or, will a mixed result suggest that the 2016 election cycle is the one that will determine Arkansas's true political future? The answers to these questions are only guesses as I write, but will be clearer by the time you read. This momentary interlude seems a natural time to reflect upon the experience of living through the many months of election cycle 2014 — which showed equal parts of good, bad and ugly.

The Good: Contemporary electoral politics, with its emphasize on a field operation powered by paid and volunteer staffers, finally arrived in Arkansas. It provided innumerable young people amazing opportunities for campaign leadership roles and political experiences like the ones I had when I was young. A new generation of smart political operatives has been birthed this election cycle in Arkansas.

Mixed into the formulaic national media stories (synopsized by the Arkansas Times' own David Ramsey) was some truly excellent reporting on the state of Arkansas politics. Some came from standout national reporters who provided insights on the field program in the state, the geography of Arkansas's electoral dynamics, and the test of Bill Clinton's potency as an Arkansas vote-getter a generation after he last appeared on a state ballot. But exceptional work also came from those experienced writers who know the state's political history and contemporary dynamics the best. The highlight of the latter group: John Brummett's moving column on Bill Clinton's brief meeting with Dale Bumpers as the latter's life moves toward its end.

The Bad: This was the year that Arkansas firmly parted from the traditional, personal style of Arkansas campaigns in races at the top of the ballot. Because it creates the sort of unpredictability that could cost D.C.-based handlers their jobs, candidates rarely left perfectly controlled environments to interact with real Arkansans. Instead, the air war created by millions in outside spending drove the race and created much more heat than light. While races down the ticket maintained more authenticity, each day of the campaign for the races at the top of the ticket felt rote and passionless. We are lessened as a state because we now know the personalities, gifts and quirks of our public servants less than in the past.

As I saw in community forums, Arkansas's voters are thirsting for the kind of information they need to feel confident in doing their job as policymakers at the ballot box. Other states with a robust system of direct democracy invest in official voter guides that allow voters to be thoughtful about their work as citizen-legislators before they go to the polls. Fact sheets with the arguments for and against ballot measures are already collected by the Cooperative Extension Service but few voters get the information. If we are going to continue to make laws via the ballot box, it's time for Arkansas to fund official voter guides that go to every registered voter.

The Ugly: Passion about campaigns and causes is healthy, but during too many moments of Election 2014, a real incivility and bitterness crept into politics in Arkansas with the worst offenders (and they span the political spectrum) using Twitter as their cudgel of choice. The good-natured spirit that has traditionally driven Arkansas politics was replaced by a dour humorlessness with moments of real meanness popping to the fore all too often. With Arkansas's political activists interacting via technology rather than in person, I fear this ugly change to the Arkansas political landscape is the new normal.

While the bad and ugly outweighed the good most days of Election 2014, I was left thankful that so many — candidates and workers alike, across the political spectrum — put themselves on the line in this election cycle. As Dale Bumpers put it, politics remains a noble profession.

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