American Politicians: Not the best or the brightest

August 10, 2007 | By | 3 Replies More

The great thing about America is that anyone can step up and run for high office.  This is technically true, at least.  

The horrible thing about America is that most sane people wouldn’t dare run for any high office.

I’ve been watching a bit of the ongoing campaign for President.  I’ve been disappointed and saddened, for the most part.  I think the system ruins those people with good intentions.  Further, I think that we’re not seeing the most capable people standing up to run for office.

I know some extremely intelligent and good-hearted people who would make excellent political leaders.  Really, I know at least a dozen such people.  They wouldn’t dare run for high office, however, and I can’t blame them.   In fact, almost all intelligent people are discouraged from running by the system itself.   The fact that our political system discourages the best and brightest (at least 99% of them) from running for high political office is arguably the biggest threat to our democracy.   

The evidence?  Almost everyone in Congress sits on his/her hands, while we attack Iraq.  Here’s another:  Our congress eternally is afraid to deal with two of the biggest issues facing us:  media reform and campaign finance reform.  Not to mention health care, social security, meaningful energy policy and dozens of other major issues.

Here is how the system filters out the people it most desperately needs.  To be a politician, you need to be willing to do the following:

  • You’ll constantly need hit people up for big money, i.e., you’ll need to engage in rampant bribery on an unimaginable scale. 
  • You’ll need to pretend that you’re not selling out your electorate when you spend all of time taking in all of that campaign money.
  • You’ll need to successfully squeeze people and businesses for big money—lots and lots of money.  You’ll spend at least have your time in office raising money.  If you don’t do that corrupt work well, you’ll soon be out of office.
  • You’ll need to be willing to almost always say what you don’t mean.
  • By being an politician, you’ll invite vicious attacks on yourself, your spouse, your children and your friends (the kinds of attacks that turn war heroes into villains & people who go AWOL into war heroes).
  • You’ll need to give up much of your privacy and you’ll be hounded and attacked whenever you are in public.
  • You’ll probably need to live away from your permanent home for extended periods.
  • You’ll need to pretend that you are without flaws or a flawed history.
  • You’ll need to commit yourself to a frenetic schedule, giving up much of what you enjoy doing.
  • Because you probably don’t have professional-honed presentation skills (you aren’t proficient in front of a camera), you will be ridiculed for that reason.
  • You’ll clamor for media attention like you were a heroin addict and the media outlets were pushers.
  • You’ll need to be willing to publicly reveal your personal religious beliefs (or lack thereof), sexual orientation, good motives and lack of evil motives for everything you do and say.  All of these will be pried open for endless doses of accusation and ridicule. 

What kind of person is still willing to run for high office, even after considering these hurdles?  For the most part, the kind of person who is so dysfunctionally driven that they will never have enough power and notoriety.   Sure, sprinkle in a few true-blue heroes, a few people who are honorable, humble, intelligent and not duplicitous, but don’t expect them to step up and serve. Or if they do serve, expect the system to destroy their integrity within a couple of years.

Campaign finance reform is the most important, but not the only, solution to this horrible situation.  It might take a second American Revolution to clean up this mess. 


Tags: , , ,

Category: American Culture, Campaign Finance Reform, Politics, Psychology Cognition

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (3)

Trackback URL | Comments RSS Feed

  1. Most of the current candidates with a slim chance of winning are quite wealthy, aren't they? I have always wondered how the population feels about being represented by people whose living standard is so enormously different than theirs. Our last chancellor got criticized for wearing Brioni and the current one was a physicist, nothing too fancy. Also, do people never wonder about the inherent conditions that probably accompany many of these quite considerable campaign donations?

  2. I left home at 4:30 Saturday morning and arrived at Ames about 9:15 AM. What I saw there: money vs. the people. Guiliani and McCain didn't even waste their time with the Iowa Straw Poll. The first and second place so-called "winners" were bussing people in feeding them and paying the 35 bucks for them to vote. Ron Paul doesn't even get mentioned in the media, yet he came in 5th with 9.1%. His support is all grassroots; from old ladies on walkers, old guys dressed up in minuteman outfits, bikers to college kids and everybody in between. All the people who want "America" back.

    You need to find out about Ron Paul. He is different. He has made a career of supporting the Consitution and fighting tyranny, and TPTB hate his guts.

    "Congressman Ron Paul is the leading advocate for freedom in our nation’s capital. As a member of the U.S. House of Representatives, Dr. Paul tirelessly works for limited constitutional government, low taxes, free markets, and a return to sound monetary policies. He is known among his congressional colleagues and his constituents for his consistent voting record. Dr. Paul never votes for legislation unless the proposed measure is expressly authorized by the Constitution."

  3. Martin says:

    I live in a University town, and not far from my house is a bar, popular with the student population, called "The Honest Politician." Once upon a time this was no doubt a student joke, but like a lot of humour it contains a grain of truth. The truth being that there really is no such thing as an honest politician and this is just as true in Britain as it is in America, in France or Mogadishu. So please don't beat yourselves up over this; it is not an American phenomenon, you did not create it and you sure are not going to change it this century.

    Something that strangely does seem to be an American phenomenon is the wilfully ignorant politician. [Please wait until I have defined the term before you explode]. It seems to me that we are justified in expecting our national leaders and government representatives, whatever we choose to label them, to be abreast of a multitude of issues. A politician must be capable of discoursing with both the public and the press on a wide variety of topics from breast cancer to global warming and encompassing school meals, alternative energy sources, immigration policy, evolution, recycling technology, the age of consent, water purification and education along the way. We can't possibly expect them to be expert in each of those topics, and many more, which is why we have government departments for many of those specific issues. But surely we can at least expect them to know the limit of their own knowledge of the subject.

    For example, at this year's Republican presidential debate at the beginning of June, the moderator asked nine candidates to raise their hand if they did not believe in evolution. Unbelievably, three hands went up.

    You can read <a target="_blank" title="Seed Magazine: DON'T KNOW MUCH BIOLOGY" href="">about it here.

    Like I said, we cannot expect our leaders to be experts in everything. But don't we have a right to expect that they do at least know what it is that they do not know. That they know the limits of their own knowledge?

    To my mind, that Senator Brownback does not know what evolution is really about is, in the current climate in the US of A, inexcusable. Has he actually heard of Dover?

    Any one can be unaware. To be unaware is not to be ignorant. Lack of awareness can be corrected by study and learning. To refuse to study and learn and yet still to profess to know is to be ignorant. That Senator Brownback compounded his lack of awareness by publishing it in a newspaper without prior study and learning is what makes him wilfully ignorant.

    But according to the article quoted above, Senator Brownback is far from being alone in his ignorance. More than half of all Americans reject evolution. The same number don't know that the Earth orbits the Sun once a year, and almost the same number think that humans once walked with dinosaurs. I don't know about you, but I think it absolutely beggars belief that that is the level of general understanding of science in what we regularly refer to as one of the most technologically advanced nations on Earth.

    In another thread I made the point that a person cannot hope to participate in a meaningful debate without knowledge of at least two sides of the fence. Without knowledge of a subject your opinion on it is worthless, and so through ignorance we cede our voice at the debating table and our right to free speech is no more than the shadow of the wind. So if half of all Americans are essentially scientifically illiterate, where is their voice in the national debate, who speaks for them who have no voice of their own?

    Their elected representatives the politicians, of course. But as Erich's essay to open this thread discusses, and as Jerry Coyne's article lays bare, they really are no better. Educated Americans are fleeing the role of the public servant in droves, and the public are left to squabble over those who are willing rather than those who are able.

    The educated American knows that were she to become a public servant she would have to spend a large proportion of her time not only doing all those disagreeable things that Erich has detailed above, but also discussing the important issues of the day with a voting public who have, through their almost wilful ignorance, lost the right to be at the debating table in the first place. Imagine trying to educate 150 million Americans about evolution. To me that sounds almost as agreeable as simultaneously debating how many angels can dance on the head of a pin while dancing barefoot on a nest of African fire ants, and I totally sympathise with any person who chooses not to have to do that for a living.

    But isn't public service supposed to be a noble cause. Are great men and women not supposed to be attracted to it by the lure of what they can do for others, by the idealism of helping the downtrodden and the oppressed?

    Obviously only up to a point. It seems to me that there are three causes at work here. The first is that so much of what is important to us today depends upon science for a proper explanation that a politician who is not well-read scientifically is going to be struggling most of the time to be staying afloat. Scoring points requires even greater dedication. This also means that even when the public servant is genuinely acting in the best interest of her voters, they may not be able to appreciate that fact simply because the science is beyond their understanding, or, as is so often the case in America, outside their belief system.

    A second contributory factor is that modern life is so diverse, not just in terms of science and technology but also education level, race and many other factors that the standard two-party system is no longer capable of representing the views of much more than a minority of voters. A candidate can no longer align himself with his party across a whole raft of issues because there are many more than two ways of looking at everything. Isn’t it at least possible that some potentially brilliant candidates have been put off from trying for public office because they are not able to pigeonhole themselves in the way your democracy demands?

    My third suggestion is that that there are many more rewarding ways of earning a living in America than being a public servant. In another forum I had a discussion with a young man at a crossroads in his life. Should he choose more education, or going out and getting a job. I told him that within reason almost anyone can get a job. What is much harder to do is to find someone who is willing to pay you for something worth devoting your life to. Getting the highest education you possibly can opens the doors to careers as potentially rewarding as being a heart surgeon, a maths teacher or an astronaut, a career that is going to touch peoples lives in a way that stacking shelves in a Piggly Wiggly store is not. Seems to me that educated Americans should be queuing up to do those jobs rather than pandering to the whims of the ignorant masses and fiddling their tax returns in Washington. And who can blame them?

Leave a Reply