Every few years, at about this time, I make a vow to myself that I might as well announce – as a guard against backsliding and a pledge of good faith with any reader who may care: which is that I will not comment on the particular points of the ongoing U.S. presidential campaign. The likelihood for embarrassment is just too high, but more than that is the fact that too much of that general discussion is premised on ultimately trivial points and transitory positions that aren’t likely to matter once my draft has reached your hands.
My pledge does not mean that what is happening now isn’t important to me, or I hope to you, and does not matter to the things I assume concern us mutually.
My aim may not seem sincere to some readers, who may note that in a previous column I addressed the reliability of “expertise” as a recommendation for voters to take as an indicator of fitness for leadership: Expertise is the standard for hiring someone to fix a clearly understood problem. The fact is that now we don’t agree on what problems we need addressed, which means that appeals based on expertise add to the confusion.
Confusion is a theme I find myself approaching over and over – usually from the perspective of individuals encountering the power of technology to change their abilities or awareness; or rather more intimately, the perspective of one seeking to maintain some individuality while acknowledging the influence of technology and compensating for the inadequacy of human nature.
You know how this goes: Workloads are overwhelming; information moves too fast, distractions are so great, and so on. More critical is the obvious problem that most individuals’ efforts or resources, or talents, are no match for the power and influence of technology. So, workers are less important and whole job functions are made unnecessary. Some entire industries (publishing, of course) are on notice to adapt to the changes or succumb.
To me this scope of examination is not very enlightening: it’s too personal. The difficulties one has are not good arguments for persuading others of one’s point of view. But one of the confounding revelations of this age to me and many more is that personal problems, failings, and so forth are frequently offered as evidence of authenticity or virtue, or even merit. These are not the lessons of discipline (e.g., Lincoln or Carnegie) or insight drawn from failure (Edison): they are simply demands for attention, and reward.
Confusion is so widespread that even though we share this common problem we cannot agree on any resolution, and so we revert to the more basic instinct of complaint. After all, personal grievances seem to get attention now, and what gets rewarded gets repeated. So, now in our quadrennial search for leadership nearly every pitch is keyed to some generalized anxiety. Each prospective voter is categorized according to his or her problem or fear, or prejudice. If you commit to a candidate he or she will fix your problem, or punish your adversary.
This is the framework of the insider/establishment discourse that has gripped the presidential campaign. One of the two parties is drifting toward unreasoned Populism; the other shows no interest in examining the Socialism they are embracing. Alternative agendas are attacked as compromises or deceptions.
We do have a permanent political establishment that relies too much on voters’ ignorance of procedures and fears of uncertainty. They should be made to fulfill the promises they make to gain their power. And as I have said before, claims to experience or expertise have to be judged accordingly.
The standard for selecting a leader is the evidence of his or her character: does the candidate show good temperament in how he or she treats colleagues, subordinates, friends, and rivals: Does he or she exhibit good judgment in the way they prioritize concerns and choose objectives. Can we trust him or her to subordinate ideology and opportunity to what is best for the nation?
But even more important than all this is the character of the electorate. Can we tame our anxiety and self-absorption enough to ask these questions in good faith, and to evaluate the results honestly?