Column | The politicians we deserve
In the spring of 2011, then-Gov. Mitch Daniels of Indiana announced he would not seek the Republican presidential nomination, ending months of excitement among conservatives around his possible run. His family’s reservations under the spotlight far outweighed any political pressure he may have been feeling, and he gracefully bowed out.
His decision was a low point for conservatives hungry for that Midwestern sensibility and sharp wit that he embodied. As former senior political adviser to President Ronald Reagan and head of President George W. Bush’s Office of Management and Budget, Daniels was a rock star in the conservative movement. But the Daniels family had a complicated past. He and his wife had married, divorced and eventually remarried each other.
Most people would have called that a happy ending. But on social media, you can imagine, that story would have been told very differently. Fast-forward seven years. Daniels says that if he’d had to make that choice in today’s political climate, he would have reached his conclusion significantly faster.
“At the time, it was a decision that took months for me to consider, one I put great thought into with my family. Today, it would take me less than 10 minutes to decide not to run,” he said from his office at Purdue University, where he serves as its president, a position he took in January 2013 at the conclusion of his second term as Indiana governor.
Daniels’ decision was a very high-profile example of when good men and women decide not to run for office not because they aren’t capable or they lack leadership qualities but because of the personal cost to their lives, reputations and family’s stability.
Yesterday’s goofy yearbook, Facebook likes and posts, or ironic tweets are now analyzed and distorted into falsehoods by thousands of anonymous Twitter trolls hired by opposition forces manned by professional digital teams and disguised to look organic. These trolls attract mobs and irrationality take over social media, eventually making their way into traditional news stories that can destroy not just candidates’ political careers but also their lives.
One of the most common complaints heard on the campaign trail in 2016 was this: Of all the inspiring, hardworking, bright men and women in this country, how did it come down to a choice between two people who were not exactly the paragons of virtue?
The answer two years ago was that people in this country had such a low viewpoint of government and institutions it was hard to get good people to be willing to be involved because they lacked faith. In retrospect, two years ago may seem like a kinder, gentler time. Why would any good person jump in today, given that character assassination comes first and facts come later?
As a country, we are only as good as the men and women who choose to run and serve on school boards and city councils, and as attorneys general, sheriffs, treasurers, state representatives, members of Congress and presidents of the United States. And while we have always enjoyed an abundance of men and women who answered the call of service and ran for office -- most of them for the greater good of their community, some for the greater good of themselves – we’ve mostly figured out in short order whether we’ve picked the one called to serve or the one who is self-serving.
But in this age of vicious politics, good people will step back and refuse to upend their personal lives because the other side is politically set on winning at any cost.
“That you will be personally attacked, marginalized, humiliated, and physically threatened is terrifying,” said Republican strategist Bruce Haynes, vice chairman of public affairs for Sard Verbinnen & Co. “I fear we have reached the point where many smart, reasonable people with the desire to serve instead choose to stay outside the system because they don’t want to expose themselves and their families to the reputational risk of participating in elective or appointed politics.”
The result is what businessmen describe as a crisis of talent acquisition. “In any well-functioning enterprise, the people who run it and do the work – the ‘talent’ – are the key ingredient to success,” Haynes said. “But through our collective words and actions, we have hung a sign on the American political system that says: ‘Welcome to crazy town, reasonable people need not apply.’”
This is not just about the rhetoric of interest groups and voters. We also need to ask more of the people in the system. Describing citizens in our republic as “deplorables” and “irredeemable” is completely unacceptable. Politicians can’t expect the consent, much less the respect, of the governed when they can’t afford them dignity and respect in their basic rhetoric.
Politics doesn’t have to be puppies and flowers every day, but in a civil society, we should argue ideas instead of assassinating character.
It creates a chilling effect on political participation at all levels. “If good people are not motivated to run, then the public is turned off by their choices, and politics becomes an exercise in supporting the lesser of two evils, voting against the enemy, or, worst of all, not voting at all,” said Haynes.
We get the social media we deserve. We get the elections we deserve. And if we continue to let the former run the latter, we will get the candidates we deserve – and they won’t be the good ones.