Two people are currently vying for the highest office in the world: one an alleged criminal with no achievements to her name during a lifetime of public disservice save for audaciously and adroitly “monetizing” her political capital; and the other a demagogic, narcissistic lothario with no apparent ideological principles but an unquenchable thirst for power and self-aggrandizement during a lifetime of public showmanship — one whose populist appeal stems largely from proposing politically incorrect policies (from which he has readily backed away when challenged).
One would think that such a contest might cause Americans to take pause and think through just how it is that in a nation of over 300 million people, either Hillary Rodham Clinton or Donald J. Trump will be the next steward of the republic.
Sure, one could make the case that Hillary and Donald are representative of 21st century America: Clinton as an identity politics-playing “victim” who has made an art of achieving higher and higher offices without accomplishment as is emblematic of our societal move towards politics over merit; and Trump as a reality TV star who has made millions of Americans part of the show, and who like many actors in the American economy has made his fortune off of an “asset-lite” strategy built on leverage and brand value.
But this cynical view aside, a rational response to Hillary Clinton versus Donald Trump might entail asking some fundamental questions about politics itself — fundamental questions that are ignored in the day-to-day hurly-burly of a campaign in the era of social media.
There are three deeper questions for those who lament our current predicament:
- Why is it that politics seems to reward most those who are so personally flawed and power-hungry?
- Why do those who are so personally flawed and power-hungry seek out high office in the first place?
- Given these political realities, would we not want to limit the power of the state and thus the appeal of public office to such people?
If you want to win election and stay in office, your singular goal is to ensure 50 percent-plus-one support at all costs.
On the first question, America’s political system, particularly at the federal level, is at its core about the redistributing of wealth in particular and the conferring of benefits on interest groups in general. Stated differently, in a system not limited by constitutional letter and no longer animated by Declaration of Independence spirit, winning elections and retaining power is about essentially bribing various constituencies from the public till and trading policy for campaign cash: a government-as-mafia scheme in which politicians pay people off with public funds to keep them happy and quiet and force private businesses to pay for regulatory protection, the ability to operate or government contracts. Continuing this analogy, it should come as no surprise then that the most successful politicians are the ones who most substantively resemble Don Corleone. Hillary Clinton has been a Don, and Donald Trump has finally tired of paying off Dons.
On the second question, the old quip that “Those who can’t do, teach,” applies well to politicians. Those who cannot succeed on the basis of merit in private life often go into politics because unlike the free marketplace it allows one to obtain power — and upon exit from public office, wealth — through political skill rather than entrepreneurial ability. Political power is based on the ability to cajole, to cut deals and to make just enough promises to the right constituencies to ensure election and reelection. It is not about offering a superior good or service at a lower price, except for selling access and influence that can be converted into wealth in exchange for campaign funds and support. For a great many politicians, and especially those who seek higher office, ideological consistency and ideology itself are of secondary or tertiary concern. Principled stances are polarizing, and polarization means no mass appeal but the potential for creating mass enemies both among deal-making colleagues and constituents. If you want to win election and stay in office, your singular goal is to ensure 50 percent-plus-one support at all costs. This incentivizes “flexibility” on issues and horse-trading with the currencies available to you — namely, public funds and public policy. It would only make sense that those who lack scruples would generally fare better given the incentive structure and constraints of such a system.
Does the public believe politicians have the public’s interest at heart?
On the third question, if politics rewards the worst kind of people, and the worst kind of people seek political office, presumably Americans would want a smaller government. Smaller government means less political power to be had. Less political power to be had means less appeal for power-hungry and frequently unprincipled people. The notion of a citizen legislator would be the ideal. Yet in spite of the high unfavorable ratings of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, let alone Congress itself, we are not hearing demands for a smaller government to protect us from strongwoman or strongman leaders. Instead, a government involved in every aspect of our lives is taken as a given. The question today is not whether the state should usurp this or that power, but rather how great its power should be and on whose behalf it should be used. Meanwhile, the fairytale of so-called “gridlock” while the state grows and grows has taken hold.
People hate politicians, but love their representatives. This is because Americans fundamentally believe their politicians should bring home the bacon, and that it is not only beneficial but moral that something be done using government force, as if in the absence of the state we would have chaos. One wonders, in spite of how unpopular politicians are generally: Does the public believe politicians have the public’s interest at heart? Does the public believe human beings including politicians are inherently good? Judging by the lack of a constituency for dramatically reducing the state’s size and scope, it appears people do have a far rosier view of politics and politicians than one might assume based on the polls.
Our Founders warned that government at its core is about force, that men are not angels and that democracies oft end in tyrannies of the majority. We have failed to heed their warnings, eschewing the republic they bequeathed us. That a known consequence of this presidential election is potentially a Comrade Clinton or a Generalissimo Trump reflects the natural end of our turn towards a progressive system.
We the people have given our sanction to a sort of tyranny in choosing a democratic Leviathan state over a republican constitutionally-limited one. H.L. Mencken said of democracy that it “is the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard.” Mencken was an elitist, among other things, but he is right: Under a Clinton or a Trump, we are going to get it good and hard as a nation, and all of our own volition.
Ben Weingarten is Founder & CEO of ChangeUp Media LLC, a media consulting and publication services firm. A graduate of Columbia University, he regularly contributes to publications such as City Journal, The Federalist, Newsmax and PJ Media on national security/defense, economics and politics. You can follow him on Facebook and Twitter.