”Why are today’s politics so awful?” There are several reasons, many of which will be explored in this four–part series. In a nutshell (pun intended), the Communications Revolution has enormously contributed to the belief politics is more awful than ever due to its impact upon the public, the media, the politicians, and the country. The prior two weeks we examined the publicand the media. Today, we examine the politicians.
One of the most common misperceptions about politics is that one must be elected to be a politician. This is decidedly not the case. Indeed, some of the most intense politicians are found in areas that are the most unaccountable to the public, such as the bureaucracy and the judicial branch.
While the judicial activism warrants a singularly devoted examination, suffice for our present purposes to note that when judges arbitrarily ignore current, duly enacted statutes or successful ballot initiatives and, instead, take it upon themselves to create new laws, it subverts the critical principle that we are a nation of laws not individuals. While many judges loathe the prospect of being distracted and/or disparaged by media partisans as they strive to make impartial, objective decisions, other judges seem to revel in the limelight and the attention. In conjunction with the Communication Revolution’s explosion of information, this drives the perception that democracy is ultimately a meaningless exercise, since the hard-won electoral results can be dismissed by a single individual who capriciously reinterprets and/or rejects the public’s decision, whether it had been expressed by the legislature or directly through the ballot box on referenda and other electoral initiatives.
Deepening the public’s sense of dysfunction in democratic institutions, federal (and state) bureaucrats have well adapted to the Communications Revolution. This may seem counter–intuitive. After all, one could once reasonably assume bureaucrats shunned public attention. While this remains true, the bureaucracy has learned how to manipulate for its own venal purposes the Communication Revolution’s competition between traditional and social media.
As we discussed in Part Two, in the relationship between a government source and the journalist, the former is now the dominant partner.
It is career suicide for a reporter to be cut off from the immediate information and assumed credibility of a government source, such as a federal bureaucrat. This unequal relationship allows the bureaucrat to remain anonymous as they push their own political agenda – one which the reporter often shares. Even if the reporter disagrees with the agenda or, worse, if the information supplied by the bureaucrat proves to be false, the reporter has every incentive not to hold his source unaccountable.
For example, ponder the awards shoveled out for the “bombshell” reporting on the monstrous lie that was (is?) Russia-gate. Pushed by their bureaucratic sources, the Russia-gate lie clearly revealed how the symbiotic relationship between “unaccountability journalists” and their dominant partner, their government sources, severely damaged the discerning public’s faith in the accuracy and objectivity of the purportedly free press.
Ironically, the scope of this damage sometimes eclipses another major factor why today’s politics are so awful; and why the bureaucratic politicians will continue to be actively, if not always overtly, political. The press’ duty to be democracy’s watchdog has been inverted by serving as flunkies for the bureaucracy, including turning a blind eye to both direct and outsourced government censorship; moreover, the relationship between the bureaucracy and the elected official to whom the public has consented and delegated their sovereign power has been dangerously inverted. Bluntly, for all who wail and gnash their teeth about threats to “our democracy,” it is high time to recognize that the federal bureaucracy’s weaponization of the press to undermine and subvert a duly elected president is the most dangerous development of all – the more so because it was successful. The failure to admit this increases the contention between political partisans which exacerbates the abysmal state of today’s politics; and, far worse, guarantees the political bureaucracy’s unconstitutional, unaccountable machinations that undermine democratic government and the power of sovereign citizens will persist and metastasize.
One would think that this would be alarming to the duly elected politicians holding public office. After all, the political bureaucracy infringes upon their delegated powers. But partisanship has its privileges, starting with the ability to ignore the sordid way in which one attains their political goals. Simply, those who wanted the same goal as the unaccountable political bureaucrats are not going to criticize how it was accomplished. Worse, in many instances they will attempt to justify it. It is yet one more reason for the dearth of political civility and comity.
Is this why elected politicians are frantically promising to restore civility and “bipartisanship” to governing and politics? Uh, no. That the Communications Revolution exponentially increases the frequency of the ludicrous instances of politicians promising to remove politics from politics is just one more reason for the public’s revulsion at today’s politics. Not that it would matter to these elected officials. They are busy building their brand.
The Communications Revolution has provided a plethora of opportunities for elected officials to polish and promote their public image. As previously noted, this is not novel. Politicians ranging from Lincoln to FDR have utilized new technologies to increase their profile and popularity. The difference today is that such “brand building” is not a means to an end, but an end unto itself. For those elected officials who are not already wealthy and/or who believe they are not accorded their fair amount of attention and influence, the prospects of post-elective office punditry are facilitated by their time spent on cable news, social media, etc. On this lofty soap box, the hottest take wins clicks and views, a bigger following (of friends and foes), and more appearances – lather, rinse, repeat. Well, at least until they leave office public office and enter the pundit elite.
Given the nature of these “hot takes,” the most extreme, primary driven candidates rise to the fore. These partisans are insulated from competitive general elections and, thus, the need to reach independent voters to survive. Sure, their fellow hyper-partisans revel in this confirmation bias and validation of tribal hatreds. But the rest of the electorate is disheartened by the spectacle of numerous elected officials placing celebrity over country; and perceive all elected officials are rabid partisans, and that it is impossible for them to compromise for the country’s sake. Or, worse, that they have no desire to even try.
This is exacerbated by the fact that the rest of the elected officials who are not busy building their brand are busy hiding from the other side of the Communications Revolution coin: the downside of more opportunities for elected officials to build their brand is how it allows one’s opponents the power to tarnish and tear down that image – indeed, perhaps more power, given the role dark money now plays in politics. Feeling they are a target every waking minute of the day – and they are not wrong – many elected officials follow the first rule of survival in the wild: do not stray from the herd (mentality).
Since every elected official must win some manner of primary, each party’s herd mentality is shaped by the safe-seat extremists who really only need to win primaries. Importantly, the House and Senate leadership is largely comprised of safe seats who, while more sensitive to the needs of their targeted members in competitive seats that are needed for majorities, are by ideological disposition and political necessity more partisan than targeted seats. Toeing this party line created by brand-building colleagues and safe-seat leadership to the greatest degree possible without endangering their general election prospects, those holding competitive seats are largely incapable of pushing back on the public’s perception that all politicians are too partisan to ever find bipartisan accord on pressing issues.
Tragically, on the odd chance there appears to be some manner of bipartisan accord in the offing, billionaires opposing such a deal (and/or pushing a pet policy aim) will establish a non-transparent (i.e. “dark”) money organization(s) to utilize the traditional and social media political messaging tools at their disposal to attack not merely their elected representatives but any elected representative not bending to their will. Obviously, the non-transparent nature of the dark money organization engenders more negativity in such advertising (in juxtaposition to such groups’ innocuous sounding titles), and erodes the constitutional design of election by district and state. Ultimately, this spurs the elected officials’ desire to keep their head down and, if targeted, lose with dignity to not endanger their prospects for obtaining a lucrative gig with a swampy lobbying firm.
And the electorate believes democratically elected institutions cannot – and will not – address their concerns and the country’s most pressing needs.
Elected officials placing celebrity over country, judges imposing their personal biases through judicial activism, and bureaucrats implementing their own policy aims and subverting elected officials who stand in their way, all converge to convince the public that those they delegated the direct and/or indirect power to govern are distant and dismissive of them; and, indeed, find them deplorable serfs to be corralled and managed. And, combined with the public divisions and the media’s exacerbation and exploitation of them, tens of millions of Americans believe there is little hope today’s political climate will do anything but worsen.
While wholly understandable, fortunately, they are mistaken. Amidst today’s awful politics, the prospects exist for improvement… And transcendence.
An American Greatness contributor, the Hon. Thaddeus G. McCotter (M.C., Ret.) represented Michigan’s 11th Congressional district from 2003-2012, and served as Chair of the Republican House Policy Committee. Not a lobbyist, he is a frequent public speaker and moderator for public policy seminars; and a Monday co-host of the “John Batchelor Radio Show,” among sundry media appearances.