Americans just cast ballots for president, for the House, and for a third of the U.S. Senate, plus various local offices and referenda in our splendid Quadriennale. It is a moment for reflection … about our expectations of our elected officials. Our national political Narrative is fixated on the presidency while, Constitutionally, the House of Representatives is our key governing body. The presidency — as well as the campaign for that splendid star turn — turns out to be 90% theater and 10% substance.
But rather than getting cynical about the theatrical component of politics, let’s look to the source of it. As that great and humble populist Pogo famously said, “We have met the enemy and he is us.” We, the people, simultaneously revile and revere our officials. According to Gallup Politics, Congress has a popular approval rating of … 13%, the lowest ever recorded in an election year. And yet… we voters will re-elect almost all Congressional incumbents … just as we ought to do. What’s up with that?
This columnist spends a considerable time on Capitol Hill meeting with legislative staff from both sides of the aisle. Reporting back from the front, the House is Occupied by generally delightful, smart, publicly spirited people who are underpaid relative to the level of responsibility they shoulder. And they — officials and staff both — uniformly are deeply eager to please their bosses … the voters.
And their bosses, the voters, see these pleasant, if plain, folks as some kind of superheroes who must demonstrate to the voters that they are … faster than a speeding bullet, able to bend steel in their bare hands, more powerful than a locomotive, capable of changing the course of mighty rivers, and leaping tall buildings in a single bound. Look. Up in the sky! It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s … Congressman!
The Sage of Baltimore, H.L. Mencken, at base a great populist humanitarian, summed up the fundamental predicament in his Last Words (written in 1926, considerably before his actual last words):
I have alluded somewhat vaguely to the merits of democracy. One of them is quite obvious: it is, perhaps, the most charming form of government ever devised by man. The reason is not far to seek. It is based upon propositions that are palpably not true and what is not true, as everyone knows, is always immensely more fascinating and satisfying to the vast majority of men than what is true. Truth has a harshness that alarms them, and an air of finality that collides with their incurable romanticism. … The mob man, functioning as citizen, gets a feeling that he is really important to the world – that he is genuinely running things. Out of his maudlin herding after rogues and mountebanks there comes to him a sense of vast and mysterious power—which is what makes archbishops, police sergeants, the grand goblins of the Ku Klux and other such magnificoes happy. And out of it there comes, too, a conviction that he is somehow wise, that his views are taken seriously by his betters – which is what makes United States Senators, fortune tellers and Young Intellectuals happy. Finally, there comes out of it a glowing consciousness of a high duty triumphantly done which is what makes hangmen and husbands happy.
All these forms of happiness, of course, are illusory. They don’t last. The democrat, leaping into the air to flap his wings and praise God, is for ever coming down with a thump. The seeds of his disaster, as I have shown, lie in his own stupidity: he can never get rid of the naive delusion – so beautifully Christian – that happiness is something to be got by taking it away from the other fellow. But there are seeds, too, in the very nature of things: a promise, after all, is only a promise, even when it is supported by divine revelation, and the chances against its fulfillment may be put into a depressing mathematical formula. Here the irony that lies under all human aspiration shows itself: the quest for happiness, as always, brings only unhappiness in the end. But saying that is merely saying that the true charm of democracy is not for the democrat but for the spectator. That spectator, it seems to me, is favoured with a show of the first cut and calibre. Try to imagine anything more heroically absurd! What grotesque false pretenses! What a parade of obvious imbecilities! What a welter of fraud! But is fraud unamusing? … Go into your praying-chamber and give sober thought to any of the more characteristic democratic inventions: say, Law Enforcement. Or to any of the typical democratic prophets: say, the late Archangel Bryan. If you don’t come out paled and palsied by mirth then you will not laugh on the Last Day itself, when Presbyterians step out of the grave like chicks from the egg, and wings blossom from their scapulae, and they leap into interstellar space with roars of joy.
I enjoy democracy immensely. … Does it exalt dunderheads, cowards, trimmers, frauds, cads? Then the pain of seeing them go up is balanced and obliterated by the joy of seeing them come down. Is it inordinately wasteful, extravagant, dishonest? Then so is every other form of government: all alike are enemies to laborious and virtuous men. Is rascality at the very heart of it? Well, we have borne that rascality since 1776, and continue to survive. In the long run, it may turn out that rascality is necessary to human government, and even to civilization itself – that civilization, at bottom, is nothing but a colossal swindle.
L. Frank Baum, in the original Wizard of Oz (itself a political parable), showed a shrewd understanding of the politician’s predicament.
Oz, left to himself, smiled to think of his success in giving the Scarecrow and the Tin Woodman and the Lion exactly what they thought they wanted. “How can I help being a humbug,” he said, “when all these people make me do things that everybody knows can’t be done? It was easy to make the Scarecrow and the Lion and the Woodman happy, because they imagined I could do anything. But it will take more than imagination to carry Dorothy back to Kansas, and I’m sure I don’t know how it can be done.
We, the people (yes Paul Krugman, I’m talking to you!), well might stop demanding that our elected officials “do things that everybody knows can’t be done.” Then Congress can go back to its Constitutionally enumerated jobs of coining Money, regulating the Value thereof, and of foreign Coin, and fixing the Standard of Weights and Measures; providing for the Punishment of counterfeiting the Securities and current Coin of the United States, and other sensible, authentically doable, things.
There are straws of sanity in the wind. Irrespective of who wins the presidency, the governing agenda — and the true hope for economic growth and jobs — will be driven, mainly, from within the 113th Congress, not the White House. As the New York Times observed last April 15th, “House Republicans said Mr. Romney … must understand that they are driving the policy agenda for the party now. ‘We’re not a cheerleading squad,’ said Representative Jeff Landry, an outspoken freshman from Louisiana. ‘We’re the conductor. We’re supposed to drive the train.’”
The presidency? Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain. It falls to Congress — the People’s House — not the White House — to unleash the imprisoned lightning of a prosperous future.
This article was previously published at Forbes.com.