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Old Ways Die Hard

November 1, 2010

I am reminded in this congressional mid-term election cycle of my ninth grade English class at North Bethesda Junior High School where teacher Alice Snowden gave us the choice to pick one of three novels she intended to read aloud during the six-week semester.

The plan was for the class to discuss the themes and characters of the book as she went along.

We selected Houghton Mifflin’s 1949 story Shane. It is a classic western which sold over 6 million copies, and was later made into a landmark movie starring Alan Ladd, Van Heflin, Jean Arthur, Brandon DeWilde, and Jack Palance.

Mrs. Snowden dutifully read several chapters a week, and the class was mesmerized by the tale. It is a basic story about good versus evil, with underlining and complex themes of unstated love, economic progress, and the chaos and danger associated with trying to bring civilization and order to an untamed frontier.

It is based on the Johnson County (Wy) range wars of the early 1890’s. Shane (played by Ladd) is a mysterious stranger who descends into the valley in the midst of the conflict between the farmers (or Homesteaders), and the powerful Rykers family, owners of the largest cattle ranch in the region.

The west was changing, and the Homesteaders were fencing off their land into 80 and 160 acre lots, and the Rykers wanted the range opened up, and the fences of the Homesteaders torn down.

The primary theme of the book is that old ways are changing, and the legend of the West with cattle drives, and open range ranching, is coming to an end.

In one poignant scene, Shane murmurs to Joe Starrett (played by Heflin), the strong-willed Homesteader for whom Shane works, “It’s always the same … old ways die hard”.

So it is that voters are now set on changing the course of the political landscape, starting tomorrow. Many new faces will be elected to Congress, and many familiar faces, some big name incumbents; will see their careers come to an end.

Voters have complained for years that things never change, that there’s too much in-fighting, and not enough bipartisanship, but they now seem willing to take matters into their own hands, and force the change they want.

While this time around it is Democrats who will bear the brunt of the voters’ wrath, both political parties have been put on notice: the old ways of Washington are over.

A good example is the race between Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and former state legislator Sharon Angle. Reid is arguably the most powerful man in Washington, and he is trailing in his bid to win a fifth term. Polls going into Election Day have him trailing by four points, and most experts expect him to lose.

In Wisconsin, Senator Russell Feingold, who has been in the Senate for 18 years, is almost certain to lose to newcomer, and outsider, Ron Johnson.

Things are not much different in the House of Representatives where several long-time incumbents are fighting for their political lives. Most notable is Massachusetts Congressman Barney Frank, Chairman of the House Financial Resources Committee, who is in a very tight race against a 35-year-old Marine reserve upstart.

This scene is being repeated in congressional and gubernatorial races throughout the country, with over 100 congressional seats now considered ‘in play’ or too close to call.

This is not a one-time aberration with things settling back to normal in the next election cycle. This is a sea-change in the way voters look at incumbent politicians. They no longer see congressional seniority as a benefit, in fact, they view it determent, that most likely, the incumbent is a big part of the problem.

With the scarcity of jobs, high debt, and the high cost of everything, voters are paying close attention, and realize that decisions made in Washington affect their daily lives.

Still, the grand theme in the classic novel Shane is that old ways die hard, and the end of the legendary West, had arrived.

We are in the midst of a similar theme, politically. Tomorrow will bring about a change of renowned political proportions that will be hypothesized and analyzed for years to come.

In the end, people will find, as Shane said, “It’s always the same… old ways die hard”.