Saturday, February 13, 2016

On the Need for Political Authenticity and Candor

The day after the voters of New Hampshire had their say, this was what I posted on Facebook:

“The chattering class has a message: ‘Give the insurgents their day in the sun, but once they get to S.C., politics-as-usual will take over; it always does.’ Maybe. But there does seem to be one thing that the three winners from last night -- Sanders, Trump and Kasich -- have in common, and that is that the political establishment hasn't supported any of them. Maybe, just maybe, the people in this so-called democracy known as the USA are sick of super-delegates, non-term-limited legislators, professional political operatives and others who think that politicians need to put their fingers in the wind before telling the public what they really think. I've realized over the years how important authenticity is to me as a voter. Apparently, New Hampshire voters feel the same way.

That message reflected a bit of venting.  But it was also the result of an epiphany of sorts.  Please allow me to explain how this epiphany came about.

Increasingly during this election cycle, I have become upset with my strong, negative reactions against the “establishment” candidates.   In part, this reaction stemmed from attending Washington, D.C. parties and otherwise engaging white-collar Washingtonians.  In that crowd, it is simply assumed that if you’re a Democrat who doesn’t support Clinton, or a Republican who doesn’t support Rubio or one of the Governors, it’s either because you’re young, uneducated, or “angry” (i.e., irrational).  But I am neither young nor uneducated.  So does this mean I may no longer refer to this blog as “the Empathic Rationalist?”    

To be sure, part of Empathic Rationalism is admitting that we’re all prone to episodes of irrationality.  We’re human beings, not computers.  But the more I reflected on my frustrations and irritations, the more I realized that I wasn’t the only source of the problem.  Surely, the candidates who run for office share some of the blame.  This election cycle, I began to reflect on the establishment candidates who were the presumptive favorites when the campaign began and wondered what it was about Hillary and Jeb that was leaving me cold.  Why was I so energized by the insurgent campaign of a Bernie Sanders, who is neither philosophical, poetic, nor especially agile in his debate performances?  And what was it about Trump’s campaign that actually resonated with me, even though he was saying so many things that I found offensive?

The Facebook post above suggests part of the answer – I have been pining for some semblance of political authenticity.  But why?  Conventional Washington D.C. wisdom says that “authenticity” is overrated – campaigners have a right to convey their messages in a manner that is comfortable to them, and what really matters is not the cosmetics of their message but rather the sanity of their message and the extent to which they have been proven effective in working for beneficial reforms.  That, at least, is what the self-proclaimed adults have been telling us – the ones who become super-delegates and talking heads.  Somehow, I found myself alienated by that perspective.  The question is, why?

I found the answer when reflecting on my own past – and in a place far, far away from Washington, D.C.  Back when I was an undergrad in the Golden State, several of my more politically conservative friends playfully teased me about being a child of two Washington DC economists who worked for the federal government.  My friends naturally assumed that I would follow in my parents’ footsteps – and, as things have turned out, I will soon complete my 31st year in the federal civil service, which is less time than either of my parents devoted to that career track.   According to my friends’ narratives, people like my parents would sit in some stupid little office in Washington, collecting the mediocre GS-whatever salary, and pontificate about what is best for the people and/or the corporations of America.  Recognizing that the economic marketplace can’t always be trusted to serve the public interest, my parents decided to consult their own personal preferences and then turn these arbitrary preferences into proscriptions for the society at large, rather than trusting the results of marketplace competition – at least this was the critique that I heard in college from some of my friends.

I would think about that perspective a lot while completing my degree in philosophy and economics.  I understood that there were profound benefits from economic competition, but I also understood that laissez fair economics had its limitations, especially when it comes to the effects of the marketplace on the environment and the poor (including the so-called “externalities” that give rise to legitimate regulations).  Moreover, I understood that my parents raised me with a strong set of values, which reflected their own brand of Prophetic Judaism.  In my family, it wasn’t religiously acceptable to devote one’s life to the pursuit of economic self-interest; you needed to serve as a public steward in one capacity or another.   I knew that I would end up in the civil service, and that there was plenty of good work that could be done in such a realm.  But I also knew that Washingtonians needed to respect the people that they proclaimed to serve.   This means it is not appropriate to infantilize American citizens.  Nor can we feds view ourselves as a cadre of nannies who know better than the American public what is in their interest or who understand how to outperform the marketplace when it is doing what it does best. 

The key word there is “marketplace.”  You see, just as a successful contemporary society requires a robust economic marketplace, it also requires a functioning marketplace of political ideas.  Many politicians enter the fray because they were raised the same way I was – with an impulse to serve. 

Once they are in power, they are left largely to their own devices as to what it means to serve appropriately.  Go back to the Federalist Papers and you’ll see that the founders of this country intended the leaders of government, once elected, to do what they feel is best for the citizens, even if that means implementing policies that are not popular.  We live in a “representative” democracy, not a democracy-by-plebiscite.  We elect people who will choose laws and command armies for us, and we expect them to consult their own conscience in the way they discharge their obligations.  Maybe our Commanders-in-Chief know something we don’t about national security policy, maybe our lawmakers know something we don’t about health care or energy policy, and maybe government economists like my parents know something we don’t about economic policy.  That’s fine.  Let them do what they think is best, as long as they respect the Constitution and the people they are empowered to serve, and if we don’t like the job they are doing, we can vote them out.

However, when it comes to GETTING ELECTED, the equation is different.  To reiterate, the would-be public servants who seek election enter a marketplace of public policy ideas.  We the people need this marketplace to be free, open, and honest – no less than we need the marketplace for goods and services to be free, open and honest.  When politicians are competing in this marketplace for the opportunity to lead our society, they owe us the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.   Otherwise, we won’t be able to make educated decisions as voters. 

We ought to recognize that political candidates have made mistakes in the past and will surely say stupid things in the present.  We should accept those mistakes as the price of being human.  But what we shouldn’t accept in a democratic society are candidates who fundamentally hide from the public what they really think about public policy or intentionally distort the records or the statements of their competitors in order to win a competition.  When they do that, they prevent the marketplace from functioning properly. 

It has become accepted wisdom in Washington that the Cruz campaign crossed the line by deceptively suggesting that Ben Carson had quit the race in advance of the Iowa caucuses.  Fortunately, the media still frowns upon such conduct as an example of “dirty tricks.”    However, what is both more common and more pernicious, and yet sadly tolerated by the mainstream, are political campaigns that do not level with the American public about what the candidates truly think.  Sometimes, they make subtle yet intentionally deceptive jabs at their opponents.  Other times, they wait to hear what the public thinks before expressing their own views (also known as placing their proverbial finger in the wind).  They may even publicly espouse a position that they neither agree with nor have any attention of supporting while in office – but the point is that when this type of campaigning is tolerated, the public can never really know what a candidates stands for or how they would govern if elected. 

What’s more, these campaigns may create a public persona for the candidate that bears no resemblance to the way the candidate speaks in private.   It’s all an act, in other words – the manner of speaking, the views that are spoken, you name it.  And this is considered acceptable, because we as a society have grown to expect politicians to be as phony as our thespians.  The only differences are that the thespians admit that they are “actors” and “actresses,” and that the thespians, unlike many of our politicians, are generally good at it.

This election cycle, America appears to be saying that we’ve had enough.  We have seen an entire generation of politicians who campaign one way and govern another.  We now want to see these politicians stand up to the mike, take off their clothes (metaphorically that is), and nakedly tell us who they really are and what they really stand for.  We want to be able to see these people paint a positive portrait of their American vision and do so passionately, not robotically.   We want to be able to see these people show indignation about what they’re truly indignant about – and we want to know if the target of that indignation matches our own.   We want to know which of these individuals respects the political marketplace enough to speak candidly, even if it means expressing unpopular views, because they believe that we the people deserve an understanding of who we are electing.  And if someone speaks crudely sometimes, perhaps we don’t care – as long as we think they are doing so from the heart, and not simply in order to manipulate us.

The best that I can tell, Washington insiders could care less about what I’m talking about in this particular blogpost.  In this city, most policy wonks don’t have enough respect for “the people” and their wisdom.  We just want to find politicians who are sane, experienced, pragmatic, and can be counted on to keep their offensive comments to a minimum.   Well my friends, that arguably describes the Congressional leadership of both of our political parties, and look what they’ve done to our Government.  They have collectively driven it into a ditch.  But I have news for you -- the American public isn’t stupid.  It’s smart enough to want out of that ditch.  And it will begin this process by electing the person who can best be trusted to level with us about how to get out and who can best show the strength to push our way out.  I don’t know who that person will be.  But if the upshot of this process is that Americans will demand a more authentic and candid discourse from their politicians, I will give this election cycle a standing ovation regardless of who emerges victorious.  

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