November 19, 2010

Just another column about national politics

Read at your own risk!

The fact that you’re reading this right now is nothing short of astonishing: For the last couple of months, we’ve been bombarded by incessant volleys of political campaigns and analyses, and yet you still have the patience to read another article with the word ‘politics’ in its title. Fascinating.

Maybe I’m being too harsh—with all the buzz and hubbub of the campaign season and its aftermath, it’s difficult to be impervious to the excitement.

Even still, there’s yet another thing I find baffling about the fact that you’re reading this, namely that, if this very column were to be published a few months from now, you probably wouldn’t be. After the dust settles, we seem to slump invariably into a collective apathy or even contempt of elected officials. Indeed, it’s even not that much of an exaggeration to say that, at the end of the day, just about everyone will be dissatisfied with the consequences of this election–which is absurdly counterintuitive, considering that as a group we decided the election’s outcome ourselves!

One of the following two considerations is likely to blame: 1) We expect way too much out of our leaders, or, 2) We have a political system that favors disappointing and mediocre politicians. Though the former is probably true—as anyone who attended the Obama rally knows, our country evidently has yet to shake itself of that tradition-rich proclivity to idolize leaders—I like to think that the latter is the real culprit here, and not without reason. If we look at the internal and external selective pressures exerted upon potential politicians, this unhappy conclusion follows without much effort.

Let’s begin then with a look at what dictates who, after all, decides to become a politician. Taking a hint from Rousseau et al., we can try to frame the politician in his most primitive state— the second-grade classroom.

Even at that tender age, reality starts speaking to us: Politicians have no real power in a democracy, it says, as they are inevitably fettered by the views and desires of their constituents. If you really want to make a difference in the world, don’t fall into the soul-sucking trap of politics; produce the ideas that move mountains instead of becoming mere slaves to them. And some listen. They become researchers, innovators, artists, writers, teachers; generally speaking, extremely productive and influential people.

And meanwhile the resultant brain drain from politics persists deep into the future: If asked to find the smartest, most gifted, indeed, the most able potential leaders on campus, I doubt anyone with his head screwed on straight would look in the Student Government.

But unfortunately, it doesn’t stop there. A regiment of inept political hopefuls steps up to fill the ranks in their stead. By the time high school rolls around, something rather profound happens to the way we approach government­—whereas before it was a mere index of popularity, it quickly becomes an embodiment of popularity and acceptance. That is to say, if you couldn’t garner respect from your peers earlier through your athletic abilities, your intelligence, your character, your charisma, etc., you now had another, albeit artificial, arena in which to strive for acceptance. If you got lucky, you attained it after all.

And voilà, a double blow to those of us who would like to see competent, interesting people in office: Normative pressures engender an exodus of genuinely talented and creative people from politics, while a fantastic notion of leader idolatry replaces them and indeed gluts the ballots with candidates looking for little more than recognition and glory, and who likewise probably shouldn’t be serving.

But why should this matter? Regardless of any such internal motivations, the voting public should be savvy enough to winnow out the chaff, right? Hypothetically, yes, though America presents a nightmarish complication to the picture on two counts.

To begin with, the market for political hopefuls operates under something far removed from perfect competition. American voters have erected almost insurmountable entry barriers for people not of the lawyerly or businessman persuasion. Indeed, according to data from the “International Who’s Who” database, over half of America’s politicians practiced law. If we throw business into the mix, we find that nearly 70 percent of our leaders were drawn from those two professions alone.

I can conceive of no a priori reason to think that lawyers or businessmen might be better at leading a country than anyone else, and the rest of the world seems to agree with me; this trend, at least to such an exaggerated extent, is not replicated in any other major country. In Egypt, for instance, more than 20 percent of politicians are academics (who play only a negligible role in American politics), as compared to only 25 percent former lawyers and businessmen combined(!). China shows a marked propensity for engineers (at 40 percent), who yet again play practically no role in D.C. Furthermore, Germany’s current chancellor is a physicist, which would be almost inconceivable in America. This barrier amplifies the effects we saw above, as many businessmen or lawyers who would otherwise have no compelling reason to serve come to see politics as a realistic way to bolster their reputations (see Meg Whitman or Arnold Schwarzenegger in CA), while doctors (less than five percent of U.S. politicians), engineers, scholars, and countless others with solid political ideas, motivations, and abilities are kindly told to spend their time otherwise.

Though lawyers and businessmen might have a clear advantage when it comes to selling themselves to the public, I highly doubt that you can convince me that they have a monopoly on such traits as creativity, flexibility, eloquence, humility, courage, or intelligence, characteristics essential to effective leadership.

A second factor contributing to subpar politicians in America is intimately tied up with our culture of impatient impulse buying­—we tend to focus more on the most significant contributions (or failures) of a given candidate rather than looking at her overall record. That is to say, we would much rather pick a very poor politician who happened be extremely successful in one or two endeavors over a much better politician who by chance made a huge mistake at some point in his career. In the end we not only manage to skip over such otherwise adept politicians, but we also engender a culture in which recklessness at the wheel is condoned, even encouraged.

I would very much like to be able to conclude this discussion with a recipe for how I think we might progress out of this quagmire, but unfortunately I am afraid that nothing of the sort exists. The hard truth is that the most influential positions in a democracy simply are not in the political realm, and truly talented and motivated people will continue to be attracted to more useful and productive endeavors regardless of what we do or say. Moreover, short of decommissioning the American Dream and its concomitant culture of sugarcoated instant gratification, I see no way to keep reckless fame- and thrill-seekers out of Washington.

But don’t worry, I’ll leave you on an optimistic note: I look forward to the day when America grows out of its puerile conception of leadership as a skill in itself and comes to see it as it really is: A field in which people of any background with powerful ideas and unyielding motivation can realistically help the country move forward. We should all hope that day comes sooner rather than later.

Tyler Lutz is a second-year in the College.