I am Jack's complete lack of surprise. - Narrator, "Fight Club" (1999)
New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote an insightful opinion piece detailing Americans’ growing distaste for “politics” – which he labels “antipolitics” – back in February.
Citing the Tea Party as one example of the latter, he laments the rise of antipolitics as a tendency of self-proclaimed outsiders to “make soaring promises and raise ridiculous expectations.”
“When those expectations are not met,” he writes, “voters grow cynical and, disgusted, turn even further in the direction of antipolitics.” Positions harden, compromise becomes a dirty word, and the result is gridlock – which emboldens the outsiders even further.
The tragedy (in the Greek sense) of this that mainstream politicians have, to some degree, brought this on themselves. The election of 2016 is our very own Frankenstein's monster.
Politics done right, as my father used to say, is the art of compromise. I don’t think Brooks ever took a class from my father, but he might as well have when he talks about politics as “an activity in which you recognize the simultaneous existence of different groups, interests and opinions.”
He further, correctly, states that “people never really get everything they want. It’s messy, limited and no issue is ever really settled.” People tend to get frustrated with this, so there’s a tendency to yearn for someone who can cut through all the red tape and actually get things done. By “things,” we mean the precise agenda of our personal preference, party, ideology, religious or interest group – and only that.
All that’s true.
But what Brooks fails to mention is that politics isn’t always done right. Part of the “messiness” he talks about isn’t simply the hard-fought battles that lead to compromise, it’s what people sometimes call “hardball politics,” which is a polite way of saying, “fighting dirty.”
Philosophically speaking, this can involve fallacious arguments that attempt to bully, shame or otherwise beat an opponent into submission. On a more tangible level, it can involve highly unethical or even illegal activities meant to stack the deck against political opponents.
Game of Thrones, American-style
Our political history is replete with examples of graft, conflicts of interest, extortion, unsavory backroom deals, break-ins, pay-to-play, corruption, scandals, and inappropriate or even abusive sexual escapades. Politicians are supposed to earn and protect “the public trust,” but too often, they’ve done the exact opposite.
Brooks links the erosion of public trust on the antipolitics crowd, which has certainly contributed to it, but that erosion by no means the exclusive work of outsiders railing against the establishment. In fact, it’s been just as commonplace within the establishment itself – arguably more so, if one considers the tendency of power to corrupt.
Consider: Tammany Hall. The decision to escalate the Vietnam conflict by Lyndon Johnson, a man who’d earned a reputation as the consummate deal-making politician in the Senate. The Watergate break-in and cover-up by an administration obsessed with secrecy. The Iran-Contra scandal. The blue dress and the forceful denial: “I did not have sexual relations with that woman.” These things all chip away at the public confidence. And when these shenanigans are exposed, voters naturally become more hesitant about trusting public office holders in the future.
In his column, Brooks states that the “antipolitics” people “make soaring promises and raise ridiculous expectations.” True enough. But what he fails to mention is that such hyperbole has been part and parcel of traditional politics for a long time – and it’s helped sour people on the kind of “politics as usual” that’s practiced “inside the beltway.” The public has come to see it as an American Game of Thrones, a phenomenon we simultaneously lament and ridicule as irredeemable.
Inside jobs, outside chances
The only thing different about the promises made by antipolitics people is that they tend to be directed at the politics people. The promises aren’t so much about the alternatives they’ll offer to the status quo as they are about the act of (choose your cliché) cleaning house, kicking the bums out or draining the swamp.
Brooks uses the term “antipolitics” as a contrast with “politics,” but it’s closely related to more familiar labels such as “populist” and “outsider.”
And just as not all mainstream politics is squeaky clean (far from it), not all populist politics is tainted.
Some offer actual proposals, such as Bernie Sanders did when ran a populist campaign in the 2016 Democratic primaries. The case he made in railing against Hillary Clinton’s apparent conflicts of interest in accepting huge sums for speeches to corporate big shots – then refusing to divulge the contents of those speeches – raised real questions about Clinton’s trustworthiness on top of earlier criticisms raised by Republicans and others.
Many people have condemned Sanders’ proposals and politics, but few have questioned his ethics.
The same can’t be said for Clinton.
Donald Trump, on the other hand, is the kind of populist Brooks had in mind when he wrote his column: someone whose policy ideas are at best vague, ill-informed and unfinished who spends most of his time railing against his insider opponent – a “nasty woman” he’s dubbed “Corrupt Hillary” whom he’d like to see thrown in jail. The alternative? “I can fix it.”
How? He doesn’t say. But voters have become so disillusioned with real corruption in American politics that many of them don’t even care. Is Clinton truly corrupt, or has she merely made enough blunders based on her own instinct for political self-preservation that she appears so? Either way, it calls into question her judgment as someone who appears to have put her own political survival above public service.
But you have to get elected in order to implement policy, right? The end justifies the means?
Or does it? If, in reaching that end, you sacrifice the trust of the voters who have put you there, what have you truly gained – other than providing your constituents with an excuse to believe someone with a different style, a different message … even if that message is little more than “drain the swamp!”?
Anything but that!
This is the problem that Brooks doesn’t address: the bad politics that have disillusioned a huge number of voters to such an extent that they’ve adopted an attitude of “anything but that.”
“That” isn’t just Hillary Clinton, it’s the attitude of political survival before public service that voters see as having become endemic to the two-party system in this country. Yes, there’s an unhealthy aversion to the politics of compromise – the good politics Brooks extols – but that’s actually just a symptom of the bad politics that got us to this point in the first place. The fact is, you can’t compromise with people you don’t trust.
In the old days of Tammany Hall and the Chicago political machine, all the ugliness of bad politics was bottled up in smoke-filled rooms. It started coming out into the open in the 1960s and ’70s with Vietnam and Watergate on the nightly news, and it’s only accelerated with the breakup of traditional media and the advent of the internet age, in which everyone (qualified or not) can play at being an investigative reporter.
As more bad politics has been brought into the open, voters have come to expect it – even to look for it, and when you expect to see something, you often imagine you’ve found it even where it doesn’t exist. Accusation becomes proof. Guilt is presumed without trial. Evidence of this can be seen in the backlash against the Clinton campaign based on the FBI director’s announcement that he was investigating emails whose content he didn’t even know!
Clinton’s guilt was presumed, however, because she’d been labeled as “Corrupt Hillary” and, more broadly, because that’s just how we’ve come to expect mainstream politicians to act.
We do want “anything but that!”
Even if the “anything” turns out to be a narcissistic con artist whose prescription is at best a placebo and at worst an even more virulent disease.
Looking for civilization
The irony of all this is that Trump, who has portrayed himself as the “not-Clinton” outsider in the 2016 campaign, is perhaps the most corrupt person to run for office in recent memory. It’s just that his corruption has taken place largely out of the public eye, in the business world, where there still are plenty of smoke-filled rooms.
Trump’s identity as a businessman (regardless of how successful he’s been) holds another advantage, as well: The same qualities voters find repugnant in a politician are, by some of us, glorified in a businessman: ruthlessness; a willingness to bend the rules; a preoccupation with the bottom line – results – regardless of how you get there. That’s one reason Trump can get away with actually bragging about exploiting IRS loopholes to avoid paying taxes.
So, while Clinton and other conventional politicians are, rightly, excoriated when they bend or break the rules, Trump is celebrated because, by doing so, he supposedly “gets things done.”
But you can’t run the country like a business. It’s not a top-down institution where leaders tell us what to do; the power is meant to rest in the hands of the people. Roughly half of those people think Clinton represents the corrupt status quo, while the other half thinks Trump’s a dictator-in-waiting. (Some fall into both camps.) These are the two least popular candidates in modern history, and we chose them. Why? Because half of us continue to excuse bad politics and secrecy while the other half is willing to excuse demagoguery, bigotry, sexism …
None of this is excusable. And until we stop excusing even a portion of it, we’ll continue on the path we’re on.
Two roads have diverged in the middle of this yellow wood, but we need to find our way back to civilization.