The Introduction to As if We Were Grownups
Our Cycle of Politics: Spoiling Spoiled Children
I’m going to guess that you don’t respect the quality of contemporary American politics. You’re wondering how I know that, right? It could be highly-attuned psychic powers, or it could be that there’s almost nobody left in America who respects the quality of contemporary politics. The way people frame their disdain, the images and words they use, differ widely across economic class and educational status. But the core opinion about the quality of our politics is shared about as widely as an opinion can be.
I’ll guess further that you’ve said or at least thought one or more of these things about the people at the top of the political heap:
- "They don’t care about a damn thing except getting re-elected."
- "Know how you can tell when politicians are lying? They move their lips."
- "They’re completely spineless."
- "They just say what they think we want to hear."
- "Why aren’t there any real leaders anymore?"
- "They talk to us like we’re children."
While we’re all talking and nodding and telling each other how astute we are, politicians and political consultants are having their own conversations. They are talking, more quietly and discretely than we talk, about us. Some of what they say, or at least think, is
- "You have talk to them like children."
- "They can hold exactly one thought in their minds at a time. Two, maybe, on a good day."
- "They say they want honesty. They don’t want honesty. They want candy-canes and chocolate sundaes and big cars and a fancy house and someone else to send the bill to."
- "They wouldn’t know leadership if it smacked them in the face."
- "Mencken had it right: "Nobody ever went broke underestimating the American public’'"
These are the lyrics of the politics that we’ve created. It is a co-creation, actually, between those who relentlessly seek our vote, those of us who give it to them, and those so disgusted they’ve stopped voting for anyone, often with the peculiar notion that they thereby cleanse themselves of any responsibility for this mess.
This mess takes the shape of a cycle. The political class, amplified by news media that doesn’t like complexity, talks to us like children so forcefully and repetitively that we become political children. Not "children" as in pure, uninhibited, innocent, playful and trusting. Rather, "children" as in immature, undiscerning, self-absorbed, grabby, uncaring about the impact our gain has on others, ignorant or unmindful that life has trade-offs in general and that there’s a Social Contract in particular that gives us benefits in return for personal limitations -- children, to distill it down to the core trait that drives modern political strategy, that get angry and spiteful when they hear what they don’t want to hear. What we don’t want to hear.
Then as undiscerning children with no sense of trade-offs, we gravitate in the largest numbers to aspiring leaders who tell us what we want to hear. We want to hear that we are great children who make our country great. We want to hear that we can have more benefits for less cost tomorrow, and still more for less the next day. If there are any hurdles in the way, we want to hear they’re the work of some dark Other, not the consequence of anything we’ve done, so that they can be removed without much pain or bother to us. And we don’t want to hear a whole lot of details about any of it, because we want to go out and play.
This doesn’t sound exactly like you, does it? It’s not exactly like anyone I know. Very few people purely fit this type...yet it seems to be one of the personality currents that run through almost all of us. And beyond individual personalities, there’s a kind of gravitational field that sets in when the political media drumbeat suggest so relentlessly that we can have so much without costs or consequences if we just embrace and believe in the Greatness That Is America. Something in us gets pulled: the spooked-child part that just wants Daddy to take care of it, the conflict-averse part that doesn’t want to interrupt the flow, maybe the conforming part that doesn’t want to be pegged as "negative" when so many others are rallying to the cheerful call.
Whatever the psychological under-story, enough of us are pulled far enough to create a clear empirical pattern: when other key elements are roughly equal, we consistently elect the candidate who tell us what children would most want to hear (the media calls these candidates "upbeat". We like upbeat). And the consultants who crafted the campaign messages for spoiled children take a bow, a hefty paycheck and maybe a Caribbean vacation before moving on to the next campaign with their winning wisdom. "Tell me," their next client asks, "what do you think it was that won your last campaign?"...
This self-confirming cycle is a self-inflicted wound to our body politic. When we craft our politics for spoiled children we end up with the accumulated mountain of consequences that those children didn’t want to hear about, much less address. This is the very engine of unsustainability. This can’t go on.
This is book is about breaking the cycle. As with most powerful cycles, you can spend a lot of time looking for a loose seam to start unwinding it, arguing about what’s cause and what’s effect. A moment comes when you just have to pick a place and go at it.
I pick campaign speeches. What if a Presidential candidate consciously decided to break the cycle? What if s/he consistently talked to us as if we were grownups?
Some popular books and films have skirted close to this premise. With the film Bulworth Warren Beatty bet that the spectacle of a U.S. Senator speaking his true unedited thoughts on touchy social issues would strike us as so absurd that we’d laugh. We did. Jerzy Kozinski told an even more elemental story in Being There. What happens when Chauncey Gardiner, who tells his innocent untainted truth with such luminescent simplicity, drops into the world of politics? We passionately welcome him as the authentic hero we have been waiting for.
This book isn’t about Chauncey Gardiner. Being There is a lovely fable and Bulworth is a delicious satire, but for their heroes to thrive in politics, we Americans would have to change more than we’re going to.
Those stories can work in worlds that we like to imagine. This book aims to work in the world we have. The speeches you’re about to read would have to be delivered in a country of real people, frightened, wary and weary people who get their information from media corporations that don’t hold informing the citizenry as their primary goal. All that magically melts away in the movies. It doesn’t out here. If these speeches don’t speak powerfully to our sense of self-interest, then they’re about as valuable as chunks of Bulworth script, except less funny.
Self-interest is the fuel of politics. We are invariably going to vote our own self-interest, to use the historic phrase, Aas God gives us light@ to see it. That’s fine. More than fine, that is exactly what we’re supposed to do in our role as citizens, and we always do it. . No book could or should change that. These speeches mean to challenge instead the way modern politics has us calculating our self-interest. This book asserts that we’ll serve our own interests better with a grownup’s perspective. Since political campaign themes have mightily obscured that point over the years, this book looks to politicians to nudge us back to a self-interest-based politics that actually serves our interests..
A seasoned political consultant (reading this, no doubt, on a Caribbean beach after her latest win) might agree completely that modern politics is a childish self-reinforcing cycle. But s/he would probably scoff at the suggestion that a high-level candidate could do much to break it. What if a smart, dedicated politician ignored the expensive advice and decided to find out? What if s/he set out to prove you can actually thrive in politics by talking to voters like grownups? What would s/he be saying?
This introduction could go on as most do, with lots of suggestions about how to think about the book that follows. You don’t need that. You’re grownups.