Even Half a Mile Underground, the Nihilism of the Political Narrative Will Find You

Sometimes, the thing to be cynical about is cynicism. Deep down in the New York Times’ big wrapup story about the

Chilean mine rescue

, there was the following nugget:

The decision by [president Sebastián] Piñera, Chile’s first right-wing leader in 20 years, to make such an unbridled push to rescue the miners was an extraordinary political calculation. But it has paid big dividends, bolstering his popularity at home and propelling him onto an international stage often dominated by other large personalities in the region.

Doesn’t that make the Times look savvy and detached and analytical? The decision not to leave thirty-odd people to die slowly underground was a “political calculation.” Maybe it was.

In addition to being Chile’s top-ranked politician, though, the president of Chile does have another role: he serves as the country’s president. So beyond the very important tasks of maintaining his popularity and raising his international profile, is it possible that Piñera was trying to—how to say this?—lead his country?

It’s a foreign concept, sure. Here in the United States, everyone agrees that the job of an elected official is to “spend political capital” to “control the narrative” that will determine whether that official is regarded by the media and the public as a success or a failure, which will determine the result of the next election. This is why, 21 months into the Obama administration, we still have

mass understaffing on the federal bench and nobody cares

. It’s why we can’t even

go through with digging a lousy railroad tunnel

—who will absorb the political damage if there are cost overruns?

So when our horse-race-obsessed, broke, self-pitying nation sees Chile get something difficult done, obviously it must be because the Chilean narrative demanded it. Not because the thing needed to get done.

But if Piñera did do it for politics, he shouldn’t have bothered. He was five months into his four-year term when the miners became trapped. Under the Chilean constitution, he

can’t run for a second consecutive term

. The earliest he could cash in, electorally, would be 2017.