"Character," "Authenticity," and Other Political Nonsense
This column will teach those of you who corner me at parties for free advice that run a risk that you might end up in a column. Fair warning. But it gave me a chance to rant about one of my long-standing grievances, about the importance of "character" in politics.
In business, nobody would hire a CEO based on his or her "character" or that he or she is "really authentic." Instead, you would (or at least should, or it would be really embarrassing to see it in The Wall Street Journal if you didn't) hire based on past records and future plans. Accomplishments should matter, not such subjective qualities as "character." Isn't there an entire tradition of the hard-charging SOB CEO, whom nobody likes but who really gets the job done (and gets paid outrageous amounts accordingly)? But in politics, it's the fuzzy stuff that people get all worked up about, even as they simply cannot define it (other than "I like that person, for some reason, therefore he/she has good character. Q.E.D.") It's absolute nonsense.
IT'S ABOUT THE CAUSE, NOT THE APPLAUSE
East Valley Tribune, Jan. 7, 2007
I recently got cornered at a social event by an incredibly earnest young man, seeking my advice on getting more involved in politics.
The kid has been a pretty active Democrat. He helped the Kerry campaign in 2004, as a college student. Then he snagged a D.C. internship with his home-state senator, a prominent full-fledged ‘winger Republican.
He must have done well, because the kid’s been asked if he would work with the senator’s campaign in 2008, as an unpaid intern and then, if he pans out, as paid staff. He wouldn’t be in the inner circle, but he’d have the excitement of working on a high-stakes political campaign.
It’s pretty intoxicating to work for a campaign. It’s all-consuming; you readily believe that you’re important and that your job has big, earth-shaking implications. You get "face time" with famous, important people (just ask them). You learn things before they appear in the newspapers or on the Internet. You’re surrounded by other young people, often from other places, and youth, distance, and commitment-to-the-cause easily lead to wonderfully intense and brief romances.
The kid seems ready for his get-in-on-the-ground-floor chance to join the glamour and tedium of a big-time campaign, but it’s for a Republican, and one who disagrees with him on a plethora of issues. Whether it’s a woman’s right to choose, stem-cell research, or escalating the war in Iraq, the kid’s professed beliefs are at odds with the guy he’d be trying to elect.
But the kid is willing to overlook mere issues, because as part of his internship, he got to see the senator in private. Took "stock" of his "character" -- to the extent a college student can know what character is. Found the guy "authentic" and nice to his staff, even if he supports policies totally at odds with the kid’s nascent beliefs. The kid’s ready to sign up today, but needed to ask me one question first: If he works for Mr. Republican, will it hurt him in the future when he wants to work for Democrats?
I bit my tongue because I know the kid’s family and wanted to be nice, but I have absolutely had it with the politics of "character" and "authenticity." First, those terms have absolutely no content. They’re meaningless platitudes. A University of Virginia survey showed that 72 percent of people agreed with the statement that "all views of what is good are equally valid." Meanwhile, 77 percent also agreed that "we would be better off if we could all live by the same basic moral guidelines." Go figure.
Second, the search for "authenticity" is a rigged game, as Bob Somerby has documented at great length and depth at his The Daily Howler website. Democrats are always fake, Republicans are always authentic. Democrats flip-flop, but Republicans are "shrewd" and "strategic" by changing positions. Remember, the most "authentic" GOP presidential hopeful last year was former Sen. George Allen, R-Va., of Macaca, hidden Jewish ancestry, and growing-up-in-Southern-California-flying-a-Confederate-flag fame. "Authenticity" is nonsense; it’s results that matter.
I didn’t want to take it out on the kid, but I tried to be very clear. If you want to work for a Democrat, I told him, you’ll probably be asked exactly what you believe. I don’t think he heard me. I think the campaign’s glamour and sizzle spoke far louder than such trifles as policy, beliefs, and outcomes.
The kid still has time to grow up, but right now he seems interested in politics for the worst possible reason -- because what’s important to him is that he becomes important. But politics only makes sense as a means to making a better world. You may have to campaign based on people’s self-interested, or even selfish, interests ("Are you better off today than you were four years ago?") but that shouldn’t be why you campaign or why you serve.
I hope someday the kid learns to ask not what politics can do for him, but what his politics can do to improve the world.