Another midterm election season has come and gone, leaving the American electorate with very little to be excited about. Campaigns across the country were devoid of substance, as politicians avoided taking firm stances on just about anything, sticking to generalities and talking points (see: Mitch McConnell, when asked about climate change; Alison Lundergan Grimes, when asked if she voted for President Obama). Meanwhile, outside groups spent more money than every before flooding the airwaves with negative advertisements.
Just as predictable as the 60-second sound bites and the wide shots of candidates chopping wood are the terms that our newly elected representatives will serve. We all know how the next two years will play out. Both sides will fail to agree on a budget or a plan to make federal safety net programs sustainable. Politicians on both sides will continue to take hundreds of thousands of dollars from corporations, lobbyists and special interests to influence their votes on defense contracts, intellectual property laws and agriculture subsidies. As the fall of 2016 nears, congressmen will stop voting on substantive legislation, to avoid doing anything their constituents would find too controversial. Ninety percent of them will be reelected.
Yet, before we fall into fatalism and convince ourselves that American politics will never change, we should take note of one silver lining on the dark cloud of the 2014 midterms: Pennsylvania’s 10th congressional district.
Pennsylvania’s 10th congressional district – stretching from the northeast corner of the state to the rural areas north of Harrisburg – is overwhelmingly Republican, gerrymandered so to protect the incumbent congressman, Tom Marino. Marino is the worst sort of legislator, voting with his party 94 percent of the time, taking the majority of his contributions from corporations and sponsoring legislation that a cynic might conclude directly benefitted his donors’ interests. He was one of two congressmen to call for the director of the CDC to resign in the midst of the Ebola crisis, and voted against reopening the government after last October’s shutdown.
Marino faced little competition from his Democratic opponent, Scott Brion, a local businessman who typically stuck to platitudes and spent most of his campaign’s money on consultants. Yet, a third candidate had also entered the race: a 25-year-old named Nick Troiano, a recent graduate from Georgetown, with a Master’s in Government, frustrated with the partisanship, polarization and gridlock in Washington.
Early on in his candidacy, Troiano decided that he wasn’t going to follow any of the conventional rules of American politics. He ran as an independent, forming his platform with policies from both sides of the political aisle and some proposals of his own. He reasoned that the only way to fix a broken two-party system is to work outside of it. He refused to accept any money from special interest political action committees, knowing that his campaign would have to be run on individual donations alone. Rather than skirting tough issues, his campaign issued five detailed policy white papers, outlining exactly what actions Troiano would take regarding the economy, health care, taxes, social security and local development.
Most independent candidates in American politics are ignored or dismissed, yet Troiano’s campaign appealed to voters’ frustrations and aspirations. He collected signatures from 7,000 people to get on the ballot, raised over $150,000 from individual donors, was endorsed by 22 mayors from both parties in his district and ultimately received 13 percent of the vote — far and away the most successful independent candidate for the House of Representatives during this election cycle.
I worked for Nick Troiano’s campaign this past summer, but that’s not why I’m writing this column.
It’s easy for Yalies to be jaded about American politics, to think that nothing will change – and, more importantly, that people as young as us can’t change anything. Some of us resign ourselves to being cogs in Connecticut’s party machines, others spend time yelling loudly at protests in desperation and many of us disengage from politics altogether.
Troiano’s campaign is a lesson to all of us that American politics doesn’t always have to be like this year’s midterm elections, and that people as young as us can take an active role in changing it. Any candidate in the United States could run a campaign as substantive as Troiano’s; any congressional nominee could refuse to accept money from special interests; any politician could choose to disaffiliate from both parties; and any 25-year-old could begin a candidacy of his or her own.
For Yalies who are dissatisfied with American politics as usual, Troiano’s candidacy is a call to take matters into our own hands and to reengage ourselves in our civic responsibilities. The mission of Yale College is “the cultivation of citizens;” it’s time each of us lived up to that.
Scott Greenberg is a senior in Ezra Stiles College. Contact him at email@example.com.