The Costs of an Unresponsive Politics

A team of Democrats and a team of Republicans playing basketball.

This is the very picture of American politics: two parties playing for points, often in view of spectators, in an environment closed off from the ordinary world.

Individual lawmakers lack the autonomy that statesmen enjoyed in earlier times.  Most officials today are suited up for a game of party supremacy.  For its sake, they have lumped themselves together in the cadres of two warring tribes.  Personal stardom is the goal, but unfortunately it’s attainable only by playing on one of these powerful teams.  Fitting in with the pros is far more important to every politician than being true to the amateurish fans and mentors who gave them their start at playing back home.

The leading class in the US has gradually broken free of its traditional dependence on ordinary voters and local institutions.  It’s no longer necessary to be personally known and liked, no longer essential to win the approval of veteran politicians to get in the game.  Politicians no longer need friends.  They can rise with the help of consultants.  Using what is essentially a corporate model, they look for seed money, then hire and recruit and posture their way into office.  It’s a grueling, strenuous affair, impossible without the right coaches, communications people, and above all statisticians.  Using data and a bunch of sociological stereotypes, modern American politicians strive to make the right plays and garner the support needed to stay on in the brightly lit arena.

So it happens that local constituencies have very little influence over their ostensible “representatives.”  Their powers are amazingly puny when it comes to reining in politicians who forget about the people’s needs.  Once in power, officials who like it there can harvest money from sympathetic backers and use the media to project the right image back to their harried, perplexed, or complacent base.  As long as they do nothing objectionable, they may stay put longer than their achievements warrant.

George F. Will has rightly observed that there are two types of politician: the type that seeks office in order to do something, and the type that seeks office in order to be something.  In the tumultuous weeks of the impeachment and since, we’ve seen that the latter type of politician prevails.  As the Republicans, in particular, make an ever more desperate effort to maintain power and ignore inconvenient demands, the game drags on, as if it will produce what the nation needs.

Image: from this source.


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3 responses

  1. AMEN, Susan. This is why it’s so damn hard to throw the bastards out! The PR is so strong, good at what they do, that the ignorant American electorate sees their reps as worthy or something. We are so fortunate that our rep. David Price is truly worth keeping. And before gerrymandering so was Brad Miller. We in most of Raleigh have now been moved to the NC 2nd, a more recent repub stronghold but now we have another chance with Deborah Ross likely moving us to the Dem side again. These all are ‘moderate’, pragmatic problem solvers who have been very responsive to the constituents.

    • Sorry to hear about the gerrymandering. The practice of gerrymandering is awful, even for the “winners” it supposedly benefits. Without a mixed base of constituents, it’s more difficult to “lead” on controversial issues and win constituents over to a new point of view. I believe this is why there were no crossover votes when the House voted on impeachment. In an earlier era, some of the Republicans could have hoped to go home and find new supporters in their district, instead of a dead loss.
      Always good to hear from you, Allen.

  2. Yes, it’s petty much true that almost anyone can toss their hat into the ring to run for public office–but paradoxically it’s most true at the national level.

    In local races, often the chairperson of the local party gathers other local officials together to decide who to run for what office, who is most electable. Far more often than not, their candidate will win.

    At the national level, though, in House or Senate races, anyone may run. No one needs any “OK” from others to toss a hat into the ring, but still a lot of sniffing, kicking the tires, and hearing either yea or nays from powerful groups may affect their choice.

    When The Supreme Court let the Citizens United decision stand, the game changed. Billions in “dark money” can flow into any race. There are now many groups which very carefully track each candidate on every issue to decide wether to back the candidate with $$$, put folks on the ground to knock on doors, make phone calls, etc, etc.

    The ability to do that simply didn’t exist before the age of mass information. $$$$ and troops on the ground are all important in a race.

    Once elected, the winner is often tied with an iron cord to the groups that got them elected. Hence their agendas get legs.

    I wish it weren’t like that. I wish those who run for office would do it the old fashioned way: get on the ground, talk to the electorate, listen, gain its trust. I wish they would send back surveys at least three times a year to their constituents to hear what is on their minds. . . . Sadly, it does seem to be such a $$$ game now, for better or worse, or until Citizens United is struck down, this is the way it’s gonna be, except with some exemptions here and there, i.e., totally self-funded campaigns, which are rare. In Illinois, there was ex-Gov Rauner and the current Gov Pritzker; for the presidency, Steyer and Bloomberg are funding themselves. Obviously Steyer has nowhere near the $$$$$ that Bloomberg has or we would have been hearing more from him.

    Thanks for writing your posts, they are always stimulating.