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01.09.10

Our Gutless Turn-Tail Politics

When the going gets tough, America's politicians increasingly switch parties or decide to retire. Lee Siegel on the current epidemic of political cowardice—and the death of the noble defeat.

Dodd, Dorgan, Ritter; Griffith, Chafee, Specter. It’s hard to remember a time when so many politicians, faced with a tough political fight, either switched life-long affiliations like so many ingrates or stuck their tails between their legs and gave up altogether.

Let’s take an about-face first. Parker Griffith leaped to the Republican Party for dear life because he "disagreed," he said, with Democratic principles, though those principles haven't changed much since way back in November 2008, when Griffith used Democratic funds to win his seat in the House. The smart money says there are more Blue Dog conversions to come. You can be sure they'll be just as “principled.”

It is hard to recall a time when an American politician explained his decision not to run for reelection by saying that he thought he was going to lose.

Then North Dakota Democrat Byron Dorgan stunned his party by bowing out this week—because, it seems, he was trailing an opponent by 22 points in a recent poll. Dorgan was used to winning; the prospect of facing a tough election, for once in his career, seemed more than he could bear. So he exited the stage—without bothering to inform his party leadership, or laying plans for a successor who could help keep his seat in the Democratic column.

Of course the grandaddy of recent political cowards is Arlen Specter. Specter was no stranger to flipping alliances—he jumped from the Democratic to the Republican Party in 1965 so that he could take on Philadelphia’s Democratic district attorney. Last April, he became a Democrat once again, admitting that he thought he couldn’t win in the GOP’s Senate primary. But he also passionately inveighed against what he called the current Republican extremism. The former prosecutor was very eloquent on that point.

Samuel P. Jacobs: How to Switch Parties Yet, lo and behold, Specter became repelled by fellow Republicans at the precise moment when his fortunes as a Republican were fading. In high school we had names for guys like that. Did Specter find the Republicans more appealing during the Bush years, when they were stealing elections and ransacking the country’s coffers?

The astonishing thing about such opportunism is that it is so bald-faced. It’s as if guys like Griffith and Specter expect that a cynical electorate will settle for nothing less than explicit cynicism. Anything more high-minded than an unprincipled grab for power voters might consider a sham.

And Lincoln Chafee just bagged the GOP in order to run for governor of Rhode Island as an independent. He used the Specter defense: The Republicans had (I’m paraphrasing) lost their minds. But it could be argued that the Republicans lost their minds when Reagan’s huge tax cut on the upper income bracket institutionalized class warfare. That didn’t stop Chafee from inheriting his father’s Republican Senate seat in 1999 and running to hold onto it the following year.

America used to pride itself on its competitive nature. The fight is part of the American myth—the superiority of natural gifts levels the playing field, they say. These days, however, it seems that the competitive nature of society has gotten so ferocious that it is dissolving, as if in acid, social bonds and personal qualities. Loyalty and fortitude have now become obstacles to winning.

Sitting before the rapidly multiplying reality shows—rooting for the losers, despising the winners, and just waiting for the catharsis of feeling superior to the defeated—a lot of people are terrified of failure. They will do anything either to win or to avoid playing altogether. Society has become so hyper-competitive that the promise of true and fair competition is now a threat.

Think game-changing steroids in sports. Indeed, if you want to gauge just where the spirit of competition in America is nowadays, just take a look at our professional athletes, those American competers par excellence. It’s not a pretty sight. Steroids, guns, serial adultery, torturing pit bulls to death… Pete Rose, Denny McLain, where are ye and those innocent days of simple gambling? Nowadays, if an American athlete isn’t using drugs to get an edge on the competition, he’s freaking out with sex and violence in a virtual withdrawal from it.

You might even say that libidinal meltdowns like those of Edwards, Ensign, and Sanford are also withdrawals of a sort from politics, just different in degree from the outright surrenders of Dodd, Dorgan, and Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter, who's also stepping down. As for the latter trio, it is—to say it again—hard to recall a time when an American politician explained his decision not to run for reelection by saying that he thought he was going to lose. The idea that there is nobility in sticking up for your principles—standing and fighting, going down swinging—seems to have gone the way of aging gracefully, the 2,000-word essay, and the honest résumé.

No wonder the next act for so many politicians is the talk show, or the aspiration to have a talk show. Hosting their own chat venue has become something like a social entitlement for ex-pols. Having scurried away from the political competition, they solicit war stories from guests who are still in the fray. The talk-show genre itself is the anti-competitive element in American life—the idea is to show the flawed nature of the major players and thus the futility of the game. It's a way for the ex-pols to start winning again, without reentering the race.

And the new hosts don’t have to worry about the old reflexes acting up, either. Opportunism and cowardice are no vices on TV.

Lee Siegel is The Daily Beast's senior columnist. He publishes widely on culture and politics and is the author of three books: Falling Upwards: Essays in Defense of the Imagination; Not Remotely Controlled: Notes on Television; and, most recently, Against the Machine: How the Web Is Reshaping Culture And Commerce—And Why It Matters. In 2002, he received a National Magazine Award for reviews and criticism.