July 16, 2014
As originally published in the New Hampshire Union Leader
It is easy to become cynical about politics and partisanship and any other p word we aren’t supposed to like. The list of difficulties with modern politics is long and not that different from the supposedly but not actually noble past. The problem is that politics is practiced by people who are all too human, self-important, unaware of their own deviation from the typical, interested in ease not work, and a bit too excitable. In short, Pogo was right. “We have met the enemy and he is us.”
Pogo was a nice philosophical possum who ran for president. Not in reality of course but in a comic strip. The current constitution does not allow for a possum to serve in the Oval Office. Pogo was a popular comic strip in the 1950s and 1960s. Comics were then as they are now the most important part of the newspaper. That gave our friendly possum the ability to speak the truth to us.
Human beings are, as they always been, imperfect and flawed. Yet none seem so flawed as the denizens of the political world. The nobility of public service is tempered, as so many virtues are tempered, by the all too human impulses of those in it.
One difficulty is that political activity is conducted in full public view with armchair quarterbacks amused by every mistake, second guessing every statement, and parsing every utterance to twist into embarrassment.
The problem is partially theirs and mostly ours. We reward bad behavior and are apathetic about good behavior. Americans seem to enjoy nothing quite so much as a train wreck. Good news bores us, bad news excites us. Complicated explanations are soporific, simple horror stories are amusing. “He seems sound and rational” is not quite as fun to say as “holy cow, he fell flat on his face.”
In Utopia, politics ought to be about competing visions to solve the problems of the day. Two respectful opponents ought to engage in a rational discussion about the best path forward. Debate should take the form of discussion of unintended consequences, long term outcomes, and comparative advantages. But, let’s be honest, to most of us that’s about as boring as reading one of my columns (no offense to those of you reading and thank you for doing so).
I remember a day in 1996 when Phil Gramm, a policy-oriented senator running for president, unveiled a thoughtful and detailed small business plan. It took some time and it was quite serious. Unfortunately he unveiled it in a pizza shop and took the opportunity to toss dough. The stories and pictures were about a senator tossing dough in the air. The substance of his plan was much easier to ignore. No one wants to read that stuff. Not that each reporter covering the campaign didn’t complain about the lack of substance in modern politics compared the noble days of the past.
The noble days of the past of course included one senator beating another on the floor of the Senate with a cane, one gubernatorial candidate in Manchester slandering another by falsely claiming he slurred an ethnic group by talking about frogs hopping across the river, and the supporters of one founding father running stories about another founding father having affairs with his slaves. Such was the noble past.
Today, a professional class of itinerant political journeyman travel from one campaign to another, often in states they have little contact with and few roots in, working month in and month out in a subculture (campaigns) that has learned the lessons demonstrated by Phil Gramm. Substance doesn’t sell. Scandal does.
So we are treated to campaigns where everything is a scandal. Your opponent doesn’t have a bad idea. Instead he’s trying to fool you, or he’s hiding something, or some misspeak clearly disqualifies him. You and I might have a bad day and snap at someone or say something stupid when asked a question we don’t have time to think about clearly. That’s okay. A team of wolves isn’t watching. The politician who misspeaks saves his opponent the trouble of making a case for himself. Humans might stumble. Politicians may not. Statesmen can be boring. Politicians must be entertaining and relatively substance free.
Campaigns are not permitted to “get into the weeds” (what you might call substance). Instead, the other side must be portrayed as less human, less typical, or less “one of us” than my guy. Personality and pop culture are used to show not that I have a good idea but that “I’m like you.” He’s not like you so you needn’t even listen to him. The difficulty is that they are all like us and that’s not a pretty sight.