Bring Boring Back

Bring Boring Back January 4, 2016

If anything is widely agreed on in current U.S. politics, it is that Washington is dysfunctional. But a lack of reflection on what’s been feeding the dysfunction may be giving us the kind of purported solutions that really only exacerbate the problem.

As near as I can tell, as I tried to puzzle it out in the comment thread of David’s recent post, the kind of election-year circus we’re getting seems to have something to do with a cultural climate shaped by some bizarre combination of celebrity and fear.  It’s downright sobering at this point to remember that in a democracy, we get what we ask for; elected leaders are in one way or another a reflection of the electorate.  None of us is blameless who has had any part in rewarding political candidates for their entertainment value or for playing on our fears of each other (a point I suddenly recall having made before).

Forgetting this, it’s tempting to take out our frustrations on current officeholders, thinking the solution is to clean house and start over.  The problem is, the self-styled “outsiders” are even more dysfunctional than the “establishment” they are displacing, as they race to pander to the country’s loudest and most polarized voices.  We can already see this in some of our greener congresspersons on both sides of the aisle, and it’s all the more true of the increasing number of candidates with no political experience at all.

But again, in a way, we did ask for this.  As a recent commentary on NPR’s Morning Edition reminded me, the absurdly early first stirrings of “this year’s” election season began with a lot of speculation about how boring it was going to be.  Even the usually incisive Stephen Colbert did a rather disturbing segment giving more airtime to the same people who by his own admission get too much of it, playing to the perception of those with actual governing experience as bland and soporific, and doing a comedic riff off of Ben Carson when he’d actually been talking about something substantive.

I have to admit, I’d been thinking for the past couple of election cycles that nothing would be more ridiculous than a presidential race between Jeb and Hillary – and then this race, as if to prove me wrong, brought us the likes of Donald and Bernie.  Now the further out the “outsider” rhetoric goes, the more compelling the occasional contrarian argument in favor of more experienced political “insiders” sounds.  At a certain point, even those tiresome dynasties begin to look almost desirable, or at least relatively sane.

In any case, finding a way back to any relative sanity in our political options will require a broad paradigm shift in our political climate.  If I am right that the problem is rooted in fixations with celebrity and fear, the solution will require that we stop responding to candidates based on their entertainment value, as if we were planning to go to the polls to elect not a leader but the next American Idol (although, in a different sense, that may not be too far from the truth); and, especially for people of faith, that the concerns to which we hold our leaders accountable be driven by that faith – reflected in the inseparable love for God and neighbor and, yes, even enemies – rather than by fear.


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  • Tatiana Durbak

    I don’t understand: are you equating Bernie Sanders with Donald Trump?

    • Julia Smucker

      Not exactly. When it comes to being way out there, Trump is in an orbit all his own, seemingly by design. I still have a hard time seeing how anyone can think he’s interested in leading, or anything besides his own self-aggrandizement. In fact there is a great irony in his campaign in that his way of saying what his base wants to hear, and thereby gaining popularity, is by giving them the impression that he doesn’t care what people think of him.

      That said, he and Sanders are roughly analogous in that both are self-styled outsiders whose campaign strategy seems to center on playing up their inexperience as a form of populism. That anyone can gain so much traction by playing to the furthest ends of polarization, with a handful of others trying to follow suit, is what I find really disturbing.

      • Mark

        The structure of incentives in a truly functional state is such that the leader’s self-interest is equivalent to that of the state at large.

        So I don’t see a self-aggrandizing Trump as somehow mutually exclusive with the good of the country. Indeed, if we create an identity in which the state is truly the body of its head (how things should work), his aggrandizement will be America’s.

        Trump himself has become the privileged locus and embodiment of America’s own collective identity and will. He finds himself in the position of the “final node” of computation in the social network. He is the center of our collective action as a political organism. To oppose him is unnatural.

        • Julia Smucker

          If you ever become president, I will permanently expatriate.

        • David Cruz-Uribe, OFS

          Julia, when I first logged on I misread your comment as “permanently extirpate” which I felt was both over-reacting and not at all in character. Thankfully, I was in error.

  • Agellius

    “In any case, finding a way back to any relative sanity in our political options will require a broad paradigm shift in our political climate.”

    It will require not letting stupid people vote. You want universal suffrage, this is what you get.

    • Julia Smucker

      That only raises the obvious question: who decides who the stupid people are?

      • Agellius

        I’m not advocating a specific solution, just assigning a cause to the effect that you’re lamenting. So long as the cause continues, so will its effects. If you’re saying the cause can’t be cured, then I guess we’d better resign ourselves. However, we do manage to weed out stupid people in other areas of life (and by “stupid” I really mean “not competent”), so I don’t think it would be impossible, if we decided to do it.

        • Julia Smucker

          You’re still sounding pretty vague. If we decided to do what, and to whom?

          In any case the idea of “weeding out” anybody smacks disturbingly of both elitism and defeatism, as if there were specific people who could easily be sorted into a category of being beyond hope.

          • Agellius


            You write, “You’re still sounding pretty vague.”

            I am being deliberately vague. As I said, I was only assigning a cause to to the effect that you’re evidently concerned about. I don’t claim to know what the best solution is.

            I note that you haven’t disputed my thesis, that the reason for the dysfunction in our political system is a dysfunctional electorate. The meaning of the saying, “in a democracy you get the leadership you deserve”, is that politicians raise or lower themselves to the level of the mass of voters. When the voters want stupid, they get stupid, and that’s what we’re getting. But only stupid people want stupid.

            As I said, if you really don’t think anything can be done about it without “smacking of elitism”, then I think your only choice is to resign yourself to the way things are. I have resigned myself, not because any possible solution would “smack of elitism”, but because I’m certain that anything less than universal suffrage will never go over politically. The stupid people won’t stand for it. : )

          • Julia Smucker

            I note that you haven’t disputed my thesis, that the reason for the dysfunction in our political system is a dysfunctional electorate.

            Actually, that was my thesis. What I dispute is the premise that dysfunction is synonymous with stupidity. And not merely because it’s elitist, but because it’s untrue.

  • Brian Martin

    “As an independent, he was elected mayor of Burlington, Vermont’s most populous city, in 1981. He was reelected three times. In 1990, he was elected to represent Vermont’s at-large congressional district in the U.S. House of Representatives. In 1991, Sanders co-founded the Congressional Progressive Caucus. He served as a congressman for 16 years before being elected to the U.S. Senate in 2006. In 2012, he was reelected by a large margin, capturing almost 71% of the popular vote.”
    Hardly an inexperienced politician, and I really am not sure where you get the idea that he is playing up his inexperience. Also, I hardly see him as playing the opposite end of polarization to Trump. It may well be that Trump and Sanders have the support they do because they are addressing issues that resonate with people who otherwise feel disenfranchised in our political system.

    • Julia Smucker

      Right, as I said, nobody manages to be as ridiculous as “the Donald”. That kind of equivalency was not the point I was trying to make by referencing him and Bernie Sanders together, but I was thinking more of the similarity in their strategic self-portrayals. I suppose that wasn’t very clear. But now that you mention it, I guess Sanders’ actual experience lends a different sort of irony to his image as a populist outsider.

      • Tatiana Durbak

        He is not running as a “populist outsider”. His website talks about his experience and his position in the Democratic party. Actually, several decades ago, his positions would be very mainstream Democratic. It’s only now, after the center has been moved so far to the right, that anyone would talk about Bernie being an “outsider”.
        Your comparison was off.

        • Julia Smucker

          In terms of his actual positions when explained in any depth, you may be right. In fact, one of the things I find puzzling about him is his insistence on labeling himself a socialist even though, on explanation, the term doesn’t really apply very well. It’s as if he’s being deliberately provocative, for the sake of playing on growing popular distrust of those perceived as more mainstream or “establishment”, which is where I see him as relatively comparable to Trump. And the tenacity with which he clings to that sort of label without there even being much meaning to it suggests more of an interest in playing to the left than in substantial public discourse.

          There’s just something that seems contradictory in all this – a sort of cultivated authenticity. If he focused more on substance, I might actually be swayed. But that’s exactly the problem: substance is not the name of the game, nor has it been for some time.

          • Tatiana Durbak

            I see it differently than you do. I think that the reason that Bernie holds himself out to be a socialist is that, in today’s terms, yesterday’s mainstream Democratic party positions are considered by many to be socialism. I consider Hillary to be to the right of Nelson Rockefeller, but there are those who consider her to be very close to socialism. I like Bernie’s substantive positions. Have you looked at his website?

  • Tanco

    What surprises me about both parties is their semi-feigned shock that a self-funding billionaire like Donald Trump could jump suddenly into the race quite successfully. Trump’s subsequent assembly of an extremely diverse following is also unremarkable given his self-applied veneer of “authenticity”. In recent decades, both parties have over-metricized the selection of a candidate-nominee. Party higher-ups relied on focus groups and survey data to groom a candidate for nomination. This year, the failure to find a paint-by-numbers candidate has sent the primary race into a haywire state. All we can do is watch the slow-motion collision in partial fear and partial awe.

    If I am at Sunday Mass, and a priest implicitly or explicitly endorses Trump, I will stand up and leave. I’m tired of the clergy reflexively supporting the Republican party. Maybe Trump’s lip-service to pro-life, coupled with his apparent disdain for Christianity in general, will keep the prelates from automatically endorsing Trump. Still, I believe that many of the bishops are timid politically, and will give the endorsement to Trump reflexively should he be the GOP nominee. The game of “tell the laity ‘vote R or Hell’ ” has got to end. Nominee Trump might force the American prelates to reevaluate their political strategy.

    • Julia Smucker

      I would give the bishops more credit than that. I would certainly say from getting the USCCB’s action alerts (encouraging political advocacy on a range of specific social issues) that their priorities do not at all conform to either party’s mold, which is as it should be. And priests are even more spread out all over the map, much like the laity.

      • Tanco

        On second thought — Julia, I now agree with your statement about the bishops’ political participation. I didn’t think my second statement through at all. I think EWTN in particular, given its partisanship, might foster a deep-seated notion in some of the laity (including me) that there’s a purposeful bias among the bishops. EWTN is not the hierarchical Church. The media outlet is only a private corporation with a political position that is non-binding on all the faithful.

        • Agellius


          As a registered Republican I can only say that I wish there were such a bias among the bishops. : )