In 2013, Edge.org asked, “What *Should* We Be Worried About?” The question, with a request for science-based reasons, merited responses from numerous academics and various prominent persons. Brian Eno, a British music artist and composer, voiced his concern that “most of the smart people I know want nothing to do with politics.”
For my inaugural article for Jabberwockracy, I wanted to address a significant issue which rarely receives proper attention: Why don’t more smart people run for office? It’s a loaded question to be sure, but the argument can certainly be made that the quality of the candidates we are presented with is deteriorating. There are very intelligent people who run for office, such as the 2012 Republican presidential contender Jon Huntsman Jr. Huntsman had a résumé that boasted the governorship of Utah, the ambassadorship to China, and fluency in Mandarin Chinese. It was a grand juxtaposition to suffer through the farce that was the 2012 Republican primary, though. Without singling any particular candidates out, for it was certainly an endemic problem, there has not been such a bumbling and unfit selection for voters to (reluctantly) choose from in this millennium. In contrast to the field, Huntsman was declared by many to be “too smart” to be a candidate (alternatively called “too moderate” by more mainstream media sources such as E.J. Dionne Jr. in the Washington Post). And in case you are wondering if this is a Republican issue, the 2013 New York City mayoral election featured the return of Anthony Weiner, who was even polling in first place by some sources in June 2013 until word got out that he lied to voters when he promised he had stopped sexting. That was the stupidity of street smarts – a sin in the big city.
At the rise of the republic, men of the highest caliber held office. Men like George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and John Adams were some of the most popular men in America before they took office. They were gentlemen farmers, celebrated philosophers, and respected lawyers – back when people liked lawyers. It was the rise of machine politics that started to provide truly terrible candidates. Martin van Buren might be a good marker of when this period began. Parties could afford to run weaker candidates who would be assisted by their allies in office and occasionally engage in fraudulent electoral practices. But even then the candidate would have to be able to hold their own in front of the public. That’s more than we can ask for from many office-seekers these days, who fail to run a campaign without at some point breaking down and either lashing out at reporters or making a statement their PR team clearly did not prepare them for (examples from the 2012 elections include Richard Mourdock and Todd Akin).
So what happened? Why have we lost the cream of the crop? This is what I would call the “Hollywoodization” of politics; not in the sense of dramatization, but in the evolution of the industry to massive financial proportions at the expense of the jack-of-all-trades.
Allow me to provide an example.
Meet Jackie, a wannabe stage actress. She is very attractive, which will bring in an audience to watch her perform. She can also sing and dance and act very well, a true jack-of-all-trades. She has to provide the substance in her role because no one else is going to do it for her. She has a real chance at making the big time, and she gets to be an actress like she had always wanted to be.
Enter the movie industry (think Jean Dujardin in The Artist).
Hollywood is able to make so much more money than the old stage theaters that they can afford to hire all sorts of experts. Who needs a jack-of-all-trades anymore? Jackie was cute, but Jenny is much more attractive. They can put her in the movie role, hire a team to work on her image, a choreographer, a singing coach – but if that doesn’t work out then they can just tweak the audio. The studio will pay through the nose for a massive media blitz to convince the world that their movie is the best thing since sliced bread (not realizing that no matter what you tell people, a bad movie would still be a bad movie). Hence, the downfall of Jackie. There are only so many roles to audition for in the world and she is no longer seen as competitive anymore.
That is what has happened to politics in America. You used to be able to get the package deal; politicians like Theodore Roosevelt who were well-educated and intellectually curious, well-associated with all socio-economic classes from different regions of the country, boasted spectacular credentials, and were enormously popular based on their actions and public charisma. But that system is outdated – having Jackie the Senate candidate who can take care of herself might make her appear too superior. And why do we care about her knowledge of policy? Her aides determine the policies. Instead let’s run Jenny – she used to be a governor! All you have to do is hire some media consultants, a public relations expert, possibly some policy analysts, and they will hopefully iron out the wrinkles (a strategy which we see becoming increasingly unsuccessful).
And where did Jackie go? What happened to the smart people who were deemed unnecessary because we the party organization decided the voters did not need a candidate to determine his or her own policies? They became the consultants. If the cream of the crop, the top graduates, the bureaucrats with years of experience looking to enter the political battlefield are not welcome on the ticket, then they will do the smart thing – take the job that is easier to get and pays more. Instead of running for a governmental position and pandering to the electorate, Jackie can just show the candidate how smart she is and be hired to consult (or advise, essentially becoming the candidate’s brain) and take home a higher salary than the candidate. A whole industry has built up around this; like the military-industrial complex, private firms have gotten into bed with the government to an unhealthy extent, and Washington D.C. has become a mecca for top graduates to flock to private firms. In fact, such is the growth of the D.C.’s Dark Side that, largely fueled by its lobbying and consulting firms, the city’s economy actually grew 14 percent since 2007. And now, four out of the five wealthiest counties in the country are in the suburbs surrounding the capital, according to a Forbes article titled, “The Expanding Wealth of Washington.”
There is no obvious answer as to how we got here. Washingtonians have been in bed with private firms catering to the political industry for years. The lobbying industry has grown with the flow of money coming from businesses and special interest groups. While it certainly did not start the fire, the Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission (2010) decision only promoted the emptying of more money into electoral politics, and candidates’ and politicians’ feelings of campaign finance vulnerability. The floodgates have been opened, and there is a vicious cycle of everyone feeling they need to throw down more money to achieve their goals. Even the climate change movement has found a billionaire backer in Tom Steyer to reinforce candidates with at least $100 million.
So, the United States is left with a mediocre selection of office-seekers. Our top political minds must out of necessity choose private industry to pay off their student loans and mortgages rather than struggle in the muck of public service. And all the while, we keep reading the same narrative to ourselves – that money buys elections. Money does not buy elections. I could write another column on that subject, but as a Connecticut native I assure you that the failed and enormously expensive campaigns of Linda McMahon prove that having more money does not necessarily win campaigns. More money does tend to go to the more likely winner, and it helps in the form of advertising, but it cannot change the quality of a candidate. The true effect of mass money in our political system has been to divert our top minds from the policymakers to the special interests, to the war consiglieres, and to the media-whisperers. Why don’t smart people run for office? Because in today’s Washington, they don’t see the point in trying.