Fighting Words

The Politicians We Deserve

What normal person would put up with the inane indignities of the electoral process?

Attorney General Richard Blumenthal debating with former CEO of World Wrestling Entertainment Linda McMahon

Asking my hosts in Connecticut if there was anything worth noting about the upcoming elections in their great state, I received the reply, “Well, we have a guy who wants to be senator who lied about his record of service in Vietnam, and a woman who wants to be senator who has run World Wrestling Entertainment and seems like a tough lady.” Though full enough of curiosity to occupy, say, one course of lunch, that still didn’t seem to furnish enough material to keep the mind focused on politics for very long.

And this dearth—of genuine topics and of convincing or even plausible candidates—appears to extend from coast to coast. In New York, a rather shopworn son of one Democratic dynasty (and ex-member by marriage of another) is “facing off,” as people like to say, against a provincial thug with a line in pseudo-tough talk. In California, where the urgent question of something suspiciously like state failure is staring the electorate in the face, the Brown-Whitman contest hasn’t yet risen even to the level of the trivial.

Speaking of things that become blindingly obvious once you notice them, it was only while being interviewed the other day that I came to fully appreciate something that I already knew. I have lived in Washington, D.C., for almost three decades. My own generation is now getting long in the tooth, having lived through some intensely political decades, but when I reflect back, I can only think of two or three members of it who ever tried to run for Congress. Some of this had to do with a ‘60s-based suspicion of what used to be dismissively called “electoral politics,” but the general reluctance goes far deeper than that. And among the politically conscious who are decades younger and up-and-coming, the revulsion appears to be more profound still.

I could introduce you to dozens of enthusiastic and intelligent people, highly aware of “the issues” and very well-informed on all questions from human rights to world trade to counterinsurgency, to none of whom it would occur to subject themselves to what passes for the political “arena.” They are willing to give up potentially more lucrative careers in order to work on important questions and expand the limits of what is currently thinkable politically, but the great honor and distinction of serving their country in the legislature is only offered to them at a price that is now way too steep.

Consider: What normal person would consider risking their career and their family life in order to undergo the incessant barrage of intrusive questioning about every aspect of their lives since well before college? To face the constant pettifogging and chatter of Facebook and Twitter and have to boast of how many false friends they had made in a weird cyberland? And if only that was the least of it. Then comes the treadmill of fundraising and the unending tyranny of the opinion polls, which many media systems now use as a substitute for news and as a means of creating stories rather than reporting them. And, even if it “works,” most of your time in Washington would be spent raising the dough to hang on to your job. No wonder that the best lack all conviction.

This may seem to discount or ignore the apparent flood of new political volunteers who go to make up the Tea Party movement. But how fresh and original are these faces? They come from a long and frankly somewhat boring tradition of anti-incumbency and anti-Washington rhetoric, and they are rather an insult to anyone with anything of a political memory. Since when is it truly insurgent to rail against the state of affairs in the nation’s capital? How long did it take Gingrich’s “rebel” forces in the mid-1990s to become soft-bottomed incumbents in their turn? Many of the cynical veterans of that moment, from Dick Armey to John Boehner, are the effective managers and controllers of the allegedly spontaneous Tea Party wave we see today.

Populism imposes its own humiliations on anyone considering a run. How many times can you stand in front of an audience and state: “I will always put the people of X first”? (Quite a lot of times, to judge by recent campaigns.) This is to say no more than that you will be a megaphone for sectional interests and regional mood swings and resentment, a confession that, to you, all politics is yokel. Nothing makes this plainer than this season’s awful rash of demagogic attacks on trade with China. In a replay of the stupidity about that “giant sucking sound” that marked the nadir of the Ross Perot populist bubble of two decades ago, educated American voters (and, indirectly, Chinese audiences) are exposed to cartoon clichés of dragons and portraits of Mao Zedong in an attempt to infuse xenophobia into the argument about free trade. Meanwhile, the Chinese are making the only tenders for contracts to build high-speed rail links in the United States, but in Connecticut a few nights ago, would-be Democratic senator Richard Blumenthal (whose main experience of Asia consists of his having lied about serving there) taunted his Republican opponent Linda McMahon for complicity in the manufacture of WWE action toys on the territory of the People’s Republic! How low can it go? Much lower, just you wait and see.

Like  Slate on Facebook. Follow Slate and the Slate Foreign Desk on Twitter.