Every January, the President of the United States delivers the constitutionally-mandated State of the Union address, in which we are told — surprise — the state of the union is “strong.” (However, Gerald Ford had the temerity to buck this convention in 1975, declaring that “the state of the union is not good.”) It’s around this same time every year that I assess my personal state of disillusionment with U.S. politics. That disillusionment hasn’t really increased over the last few years, so that’s good, unless of course it means I’ve reached peak disillusionment, which is quite possible.
This isn’t to say I don’t follow politics and don’t enjoy doing so. Exactly the opposite. It’s arguably my chief source of entertainment, and I wouldn’t trade the amusement it brings me or the fodder it provides for my writing for anything. Politics, after all, is the business of who gets what, why, and how. And when you have 535 lawmakers in Washington (to say nothing of the thousands at the state level) clamoring for goodies for their constituents and themselves in a partisan free-for-all, the resulting political bacchanalia is truly something to behold, especially since it needs cloaking in a shroud of principled rhetoric. It’s a thin shroud to be sure, but it allows politicians to plausibly lay claim to a scintilla of righteousness.
I have always been by fascinated by politics because I understood from a young age that fundamentally it’s an exercise in advancing personal ambition under the auspices of promoting the public good. In theory, such a dynamic could be conducive to public benefit. If politicians do good by their constituents, they will be rewarded with reelection, or election to a higher office. If not, they will be ejected from office. Electoral politics is a meritocracy, in theory.
But what does it mean to do good by constituents? Does it mean delivering to their constituents that erstwhile bipartisan source of electoral protein known as pork? Throughout the years we’ve seen even the most “principled” small government politicians fight for federal largess, conservatism and rhetoric about “waste” be damned. I’m reminded especially of the philandering New Gingrich, who as Speaker of the House during the 1990s continued the long-standing tradition of forcing the Department of Defense to buy unwanted C-130J transport jets made by a Lockheed-Martin plant in his hometown of Marietta, Ga. During one three year stretch, Congress — on its own initiative — added $1.3 billion in total to the defense budgets just for these planes. And between 1978 and 1998, the Air National Guard and Air National Reserve received 256 such transport jets. They had requested five.
Or does doing good by constituents mean taking truly principled stands that stay in line with the values one had espoused on the campaign trail that got one elected in the first place? Hardly, as this wrongly assumes that principled stands in fact matter.
Generally speaking, money — not merit or values — rules the (election) day. In the 2014 midterms, 94% of House candidates who outspent their opponents won, while the figure was 82% for Senate candidates. Naturally, this money isn’t being spent to more clearly promulgate candidates’ positions. Rather, it’s spent trying to obscure or distort them. The actual positions of candidates frequently factor little in elections, instead taking a backseat to the candidates’ personalities, their party identification, and the electorate’s perception of how the economy is faring. If actual positions mattered, the biyearly elections for Congress and quadrennial elections for the presidency would yield little change in party control so long as party platforms remained little changed. Americans know what the Democratic and Republican parties bring and don’t bring to the table, but this still doesn’t prevent some very expensive games of musical chairs from playing out in the voting booth.
Electoral upheaval alone is hardly reason enough to be disillusioned, but it’s not who politicians are when they run for office, but rather what they do once they assume it. In his State of the Union, Obama listed no fewer than 66 proposals in speaking to the joint session of a Republican-dominated Congress, which is to say that most of these proposals have all the likelihood of a small child’s Christmas list coming to fruition. In listing most of those proposals, Obama may as well have been asking Congress to give him a unicorn that shits gold.
Every American has a stake in U.S. politics, including me. Yet, I feel so aloof from it all that when it comes to the latest debacle I laugh, not cry.