Young should engage, not avoid, challengers

Posted: Thursday, August 05, 2010

Don Young's hold on Alaska's only seat in Congress is as tenacious as the steel traps he used back in his days as a trapper in Alaska's interior. Sheldon Fisher of Anchorage would like to pry his grip loose enough to at least make a respectable showing in the Republican primary election this month. But like most incumbents, Young's campaign strategy is to avoid his challenger. It's a traditional tactic that does a great disservice to we the people and idea of democracy itself.

With less than a month left till the primary, the only debate in the race for Young's seat has been about holding public debates. The only one scheduled at this point will on Aug. 10, just two weeks before voters go to the polls. To make matters worse, Alaska's major news sources have made little effort to cover the fledging campaigns by Fisher or John Cox, the other Republican candidate on the ballot. It's as if this election doesn't matter because Fisher and Cox aren't notable Alaskans deserving of the right to challenge Young.

On the other hand, Young has been in Congress for 37 years. He doesn't need press exposure for people to recognize his name or his status as an influential figure in the House of Representatives. But keeping his dictator-like hold on power shouldn't be this easy.

Of course, Young can and has argued his first priority is serving his constituents while Congress is in session. That's a convenient smokescreen, though. During the Fourth of July recess, he attended his own fundraiser in Anchorage and was the official starter of the Mount Marathon women's race in Seward. Both of events served only Don Young's interests.

Furthermore, longevity in office mistakenly inflates an incumbent's ego. People like Young seem to have a difficult time distinguishing between the image of self-importance and humility. They tend to forget that it's the position they hold that demands the first line of respect, not the person.

Young needs to recognize that the purpose of political campaign debates isn't to see a display of how well each candidate has served the public in the past. Nor is it merely to help voters decide who will best represent their interests. Debates should be a place where ideas are free to flow into the pool of public awareness.

Incumbency doesn't hold any exclusive copyright to creative thinking. Every declared candidate deserves the right to have their unique visions for governing our country debated. Fisher and Cox may be political novices, but Young should be encouraging them to try to shine their way into the public spotlight.

A significant paradox in a participatory democracy is how effectively our elected officials empower the people they serve, for by doing so they also raise the caliber of anyone challenging their political power. It would make reelection more difficult, but that risk is a necessity to ensure our democracy is vibrant. Such public discourse would serve us all better in the long the run.

But instead of offering his opponents a platform for the spontaneous exchange of ideas, Young has predictably chosen carefully-managed discussions and simple, sound-biting rhetoric to defend his position. He has effectively put a lid over the atmosphere of intellectual freedom and left his opponents desperate to make points with the voters.

America definitely needs fresh ideas to forge ahead. As eminent psychologist James Hillman explains, "Ideas engender other ideas, breeding new perspectives for viewing ourselves and world." The birth of insightful thinking occurs most often during genuinely free conversations. What's important is not to distinguish the source for the sake of ownership. Rather, the ideas need to remain malleable to refinement until each one becomes a shared vision in the collective conscience.

By overindulging in his incumbent status, Don Young is oppressing these kinds of creative forces that are beyond his reach. And to a lesser degree, Sen. Lisa Murkowski and Gov. Sean Parnell are doing the same. It may be too late for the primary, but for the sake of our democracy, let's challenge them all to face their opponents often enough to invoke the greater universe of unharnessed ideas.

• Rich Moniak is a Juneau resident.

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