Whether it’s the election of Donald Trump as president, or the recent political scandals involving Missouri GOP Governor Eric Greitens, or former New York Democratic attorney general Eric Schneiderman, our system of elected politics has a problem baked into it: It attracts jerks. (Also—and I’m not saying correlation equals causation—but a disproportionate number of guys named “Eric.”)
Now, some of this is simple math. If you were simply to take a random sampling of, say, 535 Americans (the size of the U.S. Congress), you would come up with a random assortment of criminals and rapists. (Some, I assume, would be good people. But the voters, to paraphrase Trump, “are not sending us their best.”)
To some degree, I suspect it has always been this way, but there was a time when we at least pretended to send our best and brightest to Washington—when we entertained the notion that we wanted our elites to be better (and by “better,” I mean both more virtuous and more knowledgeable) than we are.
Somewhere along the way, that changed. Our politicians started to (gasp!) reflect our voters. And people who had an outsized ambition started seeing political office as a way to scratch their itch—not just for power—but for national fame.
Some careers have always been magnets for egomaniacs. Politics is one of them. And, unlike acting or sports (where talent is often a prerequisite), it’s easily accessible to the ambitious and egocentric.
Leaving aside the president and his cabinet and retinue, there are 100 senators, 435 members of Congress, 50 governors, and thousands of members of state legislatures. That’s not to even mention mayors and city councilors, etc. Getting into politics is an attainable goal. Like being a local pastor, being a politician can give you a taste of fame and applause and notoriety—but it’s a lot more attainable than persuading an A & R Rep to sign your rock band.
Let’s take a moment to reflect on the kind of personality disorder might make one attracted to politics. To be sure, there are people who have entirely noble aspirations about making the world a better place. But what kind of sane person thinks he can oust a four-term incumbent from his perch? What kind of normal person is especially good at getting on a phone and asking other people to send him thousands of dollars? And what kind of narcissist would you have to be to think that you—and you alone—can fix people’s problems?
This is almost a self-selecting way to manufacture hubris. (These politicians are not people, they’re animals.)
But politics isn’t content with merely attracting egomaniacs. It also creates them. Let’s say that you run for office for all the right reasons, convince yourself that all the hard work is for the cause of freedom and justice, and then manage to get elected to Congress. You will immediately then encounter money-hungry sycophantic consultants who will tell you how amazing you are.
You will then hire a team of deferential staffers (who can be treated as personal servants in your little fiefdom), you will get to ride private elevators to the Capitol and exercise in the members-only gym, and you will face the temptation of thinking that you are better than other people—that you “deserve” to be in charge—that you are entitled. If this status comes with certain perks and rewards, then so be it.
The old cliché about Washington being “Hollywood for ugly people” seems truer now than ever.
But, of course, this phenomenon isn’t exclusive to Washington. Just as minor league baseball teams sometimes attract their own groupies (see Bull Durham), state capitals have their own version of this story.
We have turned politics into entertainment, so it’s only natural that the “talent” would eventually start acting like spoiled stars—and playing to the tabloids.
It may be too late to reel this in, but what really needs to happen is for we the people to stop thinking of politics as romantic and to stop treating politicians like rock stars, and, instead, to start thinking of them as public servants.
But the inherent problem is that people aren’t drafted for office, nor do they “stand” for office, as they do in the UK. No, modern American politicians must “run” for office. And what kind of person typically does that?
The comedian Adam Carolla has this bit about how we should weed out would-be molesters from serving as Boy Scout leaders. Anyone who volunteers to go on a camping trip, Carolla advises, should be automatically ruled out. Meanwhile, the dad who begs off, saying he “can’t go this weekend because the Redskins are playing the Cowboys” is forcibly pressed into service.
Maybe this is a good model for politics? Anyone who wants to run for office should, automatically, be disqualified from holding it.
To be fair, I wasn’t always so down on charismatic pols. The stupidest (and most un-conservative) column I ever authored was probably one that urged voters to give in to their inner rebel and vote for an exciting candidate.
“Something tells me we are heading into a time when conservatives will be willing to jump in the proverbial convertible and head to Vegas on a whim. Hey, Newt's driving,” I wrote.
Today, that looks eerily prophetic. After a couple years of Trumpian chaos with the top down, I have completely changed my mind about this sort of relationship. Americans should quit chasing the “bad boy” and settle down with a nice, boring, president who drives a minivan.
In other words, “A return to normalcy.”