Do we get the politics we want when we vote insiders out and outsiders in? 

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This is a beautiful principle, and easy to support in theory. In practice, it is probably a recipe for disaster. For one thing, the baseline rules of American democracy were laid out in 1789, when the U.S. government was far less powerful and complex than it is today. How much damage could an inexperienced president do in the days before the telegraph, the multi-state corporation and the nuclear missile? The difference between the governments of the late 18th century and the early 21st is the difference between a toddler with a plastic shovel and one with a backhoe.

Another difference is that the invention of the citizen-legislator predates the invention of political parties. Outsiders may come to Washington innocent of corruption and partisan recalcitrance, but they learn fast. When you vote for people who have never worked in government before, you might get mavericks who go their own way. But you're more likely to get party loyalists.

Consider Al Franken, the screenwriter and former Saturday Night Live cast member who became the junior senator from Minnesota in 2009. Since joining the Senate, Franken has voted with the majority of the Democratic Party 97 percent of the time. This record makes sense. What kind of person—even a famous person—would walk into the world's greatest deliberative body with zero experience in government and decide he knew better than everyone else there?

click to enlarge Ben Jones, aka Cooter Davenport on The Dukes of Hazzard, represented Georgia’s 4th District in the House of Representatives for two terms from 1989 to 1993. In 2002 he ran an unsuccessful campaign for Congress from Virginia.
  • Ben Jones, aka Cooter Davenport on The Dukes of Hazzard, represented Georgia’s 4th District in the House of Representatives for two terms from 1989 to 1993. In 2002 he ran an unsuccessful campaign for Congress from Virginia.

Yet this is what we hope the outsider candidate will do. The engine of American government is out of tune. The plane is not taking us where we want to go. So we look for someone who has not been involved in the failure we want fixed. We want this person to enter the field of governance with no experience and do it better than anyone who has done it before, because those people by definition did it badly.

There's no reason our clever outsider can't be a farmer, or a forensic accountant, or a middle-school teacher, except those people aren't famous. Entertainers are. They enter the political arena already in possession of politics' most expensive commodity: name recognition. Particularly in a short race like this spring's special election, the cost of teaching voters to remember who they are is a huge barrier to entry for outsider candidates who aren't already famous. A candidate who is already publicly known enters politics with a chunk of capital comparable to the deep pockets of tycoons like Gianforte or Trump.

Plus, entertainers are the kind of public figures people like. Politicians are the kind people hate, even though the prerequisite for their careers is to win a popularity contest. So we select entertainers to become our replacement politicians and, once they take office, begin the process of hating them, too.

Trump won election in November with 46 percent of the vote. As of this writing—two months after he took office, when he has done little other than appoint several of his fellow outsiders to cabinet positions and try to keep Muslims overseas—his approval rating has dropped to 37 percent. The longer he is president, the less he is an outsider, and the more he becomes just another politician.

Meanwhile, his party reaps the reward. Although most prominent Republicans despised him before he started winning primaries, the GOP is happy to let Trump appoint a corporate-friendly justice to the Supreme Court. If they ever get the votes together, Republicans in Congress will send him bills to cut taxes on millionaires, privatize Social Security, roll back net neutrality—all the unpopular projects he didn't run on that have been in his party's platform for years.

click to enlarge Al Franken performs as Stuart Smalley on Saturday Night Live. In 2009 Franken was elected to the U.S Senate from Minnesota. He’s voted in line with the Democratic majority 97 percent of the time.
  • Al Franken performs as Stuart Smalley on Saturday Night Live. In 2009 Franken was elected to the U.S Senate from Minnesota. He’s voted in line with the Democratic majority 97 percent of the time.

Perhaps the best thing about President Trump—the first chief executive who never wrangled votes in a state Legislature, traded horses in Congress or even managed the conflicting schemes of his subordinates in the army—is that he lacks the experience to stop them. Granted, this situation is less than optimal if you're on Medicare or don't expect to make a million dollars this year. But if you are a lifelong politico like Paul Ryan, this outsider president is just what you've been waiting for.

Maybe outsider Rob Quist will stop Ryan and Trump. Perhaps the mic skills he learned in his years as a touring musician or his natural sense of how to rally a crowd will give him an edge on the House Appropriations Committee. Maybe Greg Gianforte can dissolve bureaucratic deadlock with a wave of his entrepreneurial wand. Or maybe we have hoodwinked ourselves, and these inexperienced political outsiders won't represent those of us who vote for an exception to political rule at all. Perhaps they will merely entertain us for a while before getting on with politics as usual.

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