WHEN BILL GARDNER was named New Hampshire’s secretary of state by a Republican-majority legislature 42 years ago, Gov. Chris Sununu was 2 years old. That Gardner has become a New Hampshire institution during his tenure is questioned by no one. The question is: How did he become an institution in his own right?
The answer is that Gardner gave his loyalty to the office, never to a party or person. Being his friend, as many legislators have been, was no help if your race was close. Being a member of his political party was no help, either. And everyone knew it.
Gardner always understood that the survival of a democratic republic requires trust in its institutions. If the state’s top election official showed even hints of favoritism, trust in the system would erode. And that would undermine our whole experiment in republican government.
The secretary of state is chosen by legislators and Gardner has been challenged before, but never like this. Colin Van Ostern’s campaign is so controversial because Van Ostern, the Democratic Party’s 2016 nominee for governor, has run an openly partisan race.
Van Ostern raised $234,648 in campaign contributions by tapping into Democratic Party fundraising systems, including Act Blue. He initially pledged to use this money to help elect Democrats. He has received campaign contributions from top Democratic legislators.
Longtime political hands call this politicization of the office unprecedented. It has concerned not just Republicans, but some Democrats who understand how a political party can undermine confidence in elections by politicizing the office.
The effort to politicize non-political offices is not new. But it has intensified as partisanship has become a larger part of what people consider to be their core identity.
In 2014, the Hillsborough County Attorney ran a standard law-and-order campaign. She highlighted her years of experience as a felony prosecutor, her sweep of law enforcement organization endorsements, and her passion for protecting victims and locking up bad guys. Her opponent, an attorney in private practice, had zero experience as a prosecutor. It should have been a landslide victory for the incumbent.
But 2014 was a good year for Republicans and County Attorney Patricia LaFrance was a Democrat. Her opponent, Dennis Hogan, was in the right party at the right time.
Hogan, whose tenure was capped by an Attorney General’s investigation, was turned out in November. Elected in one partisan spasm, he was defeated in another. Like him, County Attorney Michael Conlon has zero prosecutorial experience. To make up for that, he campaigned as a partisan Democrat.
Since then, Conlon has tweeted from what he presents as his official Twitter account as if he were a party activist rather than an impartial enforcer of the law. He has retweeted political statements from Democratic politicians and the New Hampshire Democratic Party and expressed interest in investigating Republican public officials.
That is not the best way to instill confidence in the rule of law.
But the rule of law is increasingly seen as antiquated. Impartial justice and strict adherence to procedures and rules are out. For hardcore partisans, attaining power is all that matters, and politics is increasingly dominated by hardcore partisans.
As columnist Jonah Goldberg details in his book, “Suicide of the West,” this represents not progress, but corruption. Humans by nature are tribal. Our animal instincts prompt us to cluster in groups for protection, and to distrust other groups.
Signs of this regression to tribalism are why my organization, the Josiah Bartlett Center for Public Policy, is bringing Goldberg to speak at our annual Libertas Award Dinner next Monday. How to defend civilization from our most destructive human impulses is a conversation we all need to have. If you think so too, you should consider joining us.