Today millions of Americans will dutifully go to the polls and perform their civic duty.

I suspect in the 1998 midterm elections, more citizens than ever will cast their ballots not for the candidates they believe will do their best to uphold the Constitution of the United States, but for those who are most likely to bring them goodies.

This is a scary concept. We may have reached the point where more than half of American voters are either employed by government or receiving some “freebie” or subsidy from Washington. That makes it very easy for government to extend its long reach into the pocketbooks of the rest of us, not to mention to take more control over all of our lives.

Let me give you an example of how overt this practice is getting with regard to the actual manipulation of elections.

On Oct. 16, President Clinton declared a national emergency in the small town of Kelso, Washington, population 12,000. What had happened in Kelso to warrant such attention from the White House?

During the previous year or so, a small community within this small community had been hit by mudslides. About 100 homes were damaged. The average value of a home in the affluent area is about $100,000.

Mind you, no one has been left homeless by the troubles in Kelso. But it has caused some financial woes, some inconvenience. About $10 million in federal money was made available through the Federal Emergency Management Agency to homeowners in need.

A nice sentiment. No one wants to see homeowners victimized by disasters beyond their control. But was this truly a “national emergency”?

Of course not. But it was good politics — especially for Democratic Sen. Patty Murray, who is seeking re-election today in a tough fight with Republican Rep. Linda Smith.

Murray was even given the opportunity by the White House to make the announcement in her state. She had brought home the bacon for her constituents. And who could argue the point? Only the most heartless, cruel conservative would dare to speak out against such largesse. After all, Washington state taxpayers had certainly helped bail out residents in other states hit by disasters. Turnabout is fair play. Isn’t it?

There’s no way Murray will lose any votes over such a clever redistribution of wealth. Neither will any of Bill Clinton’s other Democratic allies. You won’t even hear any Republican officials or candidates denounce such legalized thievery. Because they do it, too, any chance they get. It is simply not politically feasible to oppose the growing number of bailouts due to so-called “national emergencies.”

This is the power of incumbency. And my guess is that when the polls close tonight, you will see lots of incumbents returned to office because of practices like this.

It’s just one example of how we are losing control of our country. Most Americans wouldn’t even see anything wrong with such transfers of wealth, nor the empowerment of agencies like FEMA. It’s just politics as usual.

So, today, state and local governments are trained like Pavlov’s dogs to apply for federal disaster relief every time it rains. Why not? There’s free money available from Washington. And it comes with no strings attached, no stigma of welfare, no shame, no guilt.

The Clinton White House has taken this racket to a new level of artistry. It has used such unquestioned practices to consolidate the power of its own administration, raise the profile of its favored political allies and concentrate more and more authority in Washington at the expense of the states and local governments.

When you analyze trends like this — totally unreported by the establishment press, which takes such practices for granted — it’s easy to lose whatever remaining faith you might have in the American political system.

Sure it’s easy for many Americans to talk about politics in the abstract — to call for smaller, more decentralized government. But when we get in the voting booth, too often we think only of self-interest. Too often we think only in the short term. Too often we think conventionally — the way we’ve become programmed to think.

With all that in mind, don’t look for a revolution in the making as Americans make their way to the polls today — like lemmings to the sea.

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