Begetting Worse Politicians
As someone who was temporarily under the impression that Sarah Palin was not “just another” and who has come to find that, no, she is “just another”, I find the opposition to her to be disproportionate to what she actually is.
She, herself, is not that interesting. She’s just another. Like thousands before and after her.
The criticisms of her, however, strike me as odd and out of place given the subject and are, therefore, much more interesting… but since I’m arguing against folks who are arguing against Palin, this tends to be interpreted as support for Palin, if not support for the Republican Party, if not support for snake-handling, speaking-in-tongues, government subsidies, birthing children out of wedlock, and fishing with dynamite.
This is exactly right. I would just add that by focusing on Palin as somehow uniquely dishonest and unqualified, etc., it makes her not “just another,” helping to ensure that all the other “just anothers” get to continue being “just another.”
Many/most/all (take your pick) politicians, especially on the national level, are egomaniacal, self-aggrandizing, self-deceiving jerks. This is, in many ways, the nature of being a national politician who gets to soak in the spotlight. Some degree of these traits is, indeed, a prerequisite for anyone who seeks that amount of fame and power over others. Palin, I’m sure, has them in spades, but this hardly makes her uniquely dangerous or uniquely symptomatic of the problem.
Indeed, with someone who has these traits in spades, there is no such thing as bad publicity. Bad publicity just allows them to portray themselves as victims being attacked unfairly….it will rarely truly hurt their public standing. Of course, someone who has these traits to the minimal extent necessary to be a national politician, but still possesses them more than the vast majority of people (aka, a semi-decent politician) will not withstand such a withering examination of their personal life, probably because they have not yet forgotten that they one time knew an emotion called humility and shame. Seeing that their personal lives will be held up to such scrutiny is a pretty strong disincentive to them becoming national politicians.
Politicians lie. A lot. Always have, always will. It’s what happens when victory is defined by pleasing tens of millions of people more than your opponent pleases tens of millions of people.
To illustrate: there is an old proverb that you can “please some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but you will never please all of the people all of the time.” In a democracy, however, the goal of the national politician is quite literally to please most of the people all of the time, since everyone has different things that they care about enough to make dealbreakers in earning their vote. Lying (or at least exaggerating the truth greatly) is on some level part of the job description.
But by scrutinizing every element of their personal lives, and every statement they make about their personal lives, we just insure that the politicians we get are going to be the politicians that lie the most and the best, and who have the least amount of shame and humility. There are few among us without skeletons in our closet that we would not like exposed to the whole world, particularly not in this day and age when even the smallest skeleton can be spun into proof that you are secretly a [Socialist, Nazi, Fascist, hater of children, ponies, and all that is good and sacred with the world].*
And the less egotistical, self-aggrandizing, and self-deceiving you are, the less willing you are going to be to enter a world where you increasingly have to defend every word you ever said, and every act you’ve ever done (no matter how personal). In such a world, the solution to such relentless attacks is not to come clean and tell the truth – which may or may not cost you an election. Instead, the best and easiest solution for such a politician is to lie and obfuscate. At a minimum, this will force your opponent to spend precious time and resources disproving the lie or to continue searching for a “smoking gun” (which, if found, can be answered with a lie that will again force your opponent to waste resources disproving it). Simply put, the relentless investigation of every aspect of a politician’s life, and of every word they have ever said (no matter how personal the subject) is a fantastic way of ensuring that decent people stay far, far away from politics while rewarding the single most dangerous trait a politician can have: the ability to lie well.
What is particularly upsetting about the pursuit of the story of Trig Palin’s birth is that it is so unbelievably personal. I assume that Palin’s story of the birth is true, although frankly I wouldn’t care much if it were false. But the fact is, just by making the circumstances of the birth of a politician’s special needs child relevant, we make it so that a politician has to consider whether they want the circumstances of their children’s births made into a matter of public investigation before they run for national office. I simply cannot imagine a decent human being weighing that consideration, and finding it insufficient to prevent them from running for office – no matter how unremarkable those births may have been. In other words, we are now increasingly likely to get national politicians with so little shame and humility as to be willing to allow the public investigation of the births of their children.
Finally, let me say that I am non-plussed by the idea that the relentless investigation of Palin is justified because of how close she came to the Vice-Presidency and because it shows the cynicism of the McCain campaign. The fact is, everyone knew he was going to be a big underdog in the general election. I also have little doubt that McCain sincerely believed he would make a better President than Obama. It should not be surprising that he may have chosen a candidate almost exclusively on her ability to help him pull off an upset. That’s the nature of politics – the first goal of a politician always has to be to get elected, since it’s a prerequisite to getting the power they need to tell others how to live.** His gamble didn’t pay off since he didn’t win the election. That may or may not mean that the Palin nomination was a smart move in terms of helping him win the election (I suspect it made the race closer than it otherwise would have been since it mobilized the base so well); but it makes little sense to relentlessly pursue Palin’s personal qualities as a way of indicting McCain’s alleged cynicism and irresponsibility when his first priority all along had to be maximizing his chances of winning the election. Given his underdog status, I don’t see anything at all surprising or noteworthy that the sole factor he considered in choosing a running mate was her ability to help him win the Presidency.
UPDATE: In the comments, Moff raises a hypo that inadvertently illustrates my point here, writing: “if Palin’s story is kosher and I was really committed to sparing my family the pain of facing speculation by the media, I’d have produced some documentation and asked my doctor to make a public statement.” As I write in my reply comment, this is exactly why the pursuit of Palin’s personal life is so problematic, no matter how much she made that personal life relevant during her campaign. Someone who has a modicum of humility and shame and concerns about something other than the naked pursuit of power would do exactly as Moff would do, but would be pretty discourage from running again in the future; someone without those traits, who cares purely about the pursuit of power, would ensure that the issue stays alive as long as possible to continue playing the role of victim and garnering more votes and sympathy.
* To the extent there are any of us who are truly without skeletons, they would not make particularly good national politicians because at this point in history, a person with that level of virtue would never seek out the publicity necessary to run for elected office.
** The less cynical phrasing of this would be “getting the power they need to implement their vision of society.”