We Are All Politicians

Mike Pesca hosts The Gist podcast on Slate, one of my favorite news/opinion shows. He had an excellent piece on May 12th about politics and elections, which I transcribed. I don’t know enough about the U.K. election to agree it was a good or bad thing, I’m merely fond of the questions and observations he makes here:

Imagine if you were a performer or a stand up comic, and you magically knew the jokes you could say that would get the audience to laugh. Reliable jokes. You’d probably say those jokes. Maybe you’d use those jokes as ballast, and from that reliable set of jokes maybe you’d experiment, or maybe not, maybe you’d just revel in the laughter. What if you were a playwright and you knew what audiences would like, I don’t mean you had the sense that they liked this sort of play, you really polled audiences. You knew the plots they liked, you knew the characters they liked, you knew how to write a play that everyone would generally say, yeah, that’s the sort of play I like.

What about you at a party. And someone is whispering in your ear… the anecdotes they’d like to hear. Maybe the quips they’d like to hear out of you. The stories they’d like…the phrases that will make them smile. That will make them think you are the kind of person they’re glad they invited. No matter how much of a rebel you think you are, I think it would be pretty hard to go against the script. Maybe you could do it here and there, as a toe touch, but generally, if you knew that these were the things you should do, say or act like to get in other people’s social graces you would do those things.

And what if you were running for office. And you knew what the people wanted to hear. Maybe some of the people, those in your party wanted to hear slightly different things than other people, but you’d probably say “I’d say some of those things to the people who need to hear it when they need to hear it” and then when… I become the nominee I’ll say the things all of the people want to hear. Well this is the state with politics today. The state with polling is that every politician knows what the right answer is. What the popular political answer is. And as much as people want to say “You have to do the things that are unpopular, that’s leadership” yeah, that’s also unemployment for a popularly elected politician.

…In the U.K. they call an election and then they have that election 6 weeks later. And there’s much less money in the election. Less money for TV and less money for polling. The politicians in the UK. do not know as much as the U.S. politicians know. Therefore U.K. politicians generally say more what they believe. And this is a good and useful thing. You might say “that’s a good and useful thing to have more honest politicians”. If you say what you believe than you can be exposed for having bad ideas. This short election span, this lack of someone whispering in your ear what is the exact right thing to say, it can expose a party, it can sweep those bad ideas out of office. That is exactly what happened in the U.K. I wish that could happen in the U.S. It leads to honesty. Honestly good ideas, but also, there is a virtue to these honestly bad ideas.”

5 Responses to “We Are All Politicians”

  1. Dave Gordon

    During one of the early GOP presidential primaries in 2011, all nine candidates chimed in to confirm that the world was created in six days, as described in the first few verses of Genesis. None of them seemed willing to talk about getting out of the quagmire of Dubya’s War on Scary People, how to resurrect the collapsed economy, global warming and pervasive drought, our crumbling infrastructure, or the fact that literally millions of families would face bankruptcy if a major medical event put one of them in the hospital. No, they simply confirmed their personal belief that the book of Genesis is journalism, rather than metaphor. And the journalists who reported their empty presentations without question or comment demonstrated that the public had no expectations of anything more. Which probably explains why so many news publishers are going out of business, and the few that remain continue to avoid asking questions, unless someone discovers a politician in bed with a live boy or a dead girl.

    We don’t know what leadership is. We don’t know what journalism is. And we don’t question our received knowledge. We, the Sheeple of the United States, would be a profound disappointment to those late 18th century Americans who read the Federalist Papers and debated them in public.

  2. Sean Crawford

    I hear you, Dave. There was a time when “journalistic ethics” meant having “balance” to avoid accidentally self-editorializing. For example, if everybody and their dog knows a proposed dam would be good for farmers, the ethical reporter would nevertheless find someone, say a soil expert, to give the opposite opinion. (salt leaching)

    A few years back I noticed that every time journalists said the Iraqi army was to get more U.S. army training, no reporter ever balanced by getting a history professor or Vietnam veteran to say “more training” was not the issue. (Incidentally, I don’t see the long list of Nam lessons being applied to the War on Drugs, either)

    As for issues, in Canada, like in Britain, they have snap elections too, not fixed election dates. (for good reasons) This puts more onus on citizenship being a year round thing. As Canada’s first female prime minister said, “An election is no time to discuss issues.” She meant by then there is only time for sound bites and slogans.

    Between elections is when you can have, say, essays to ponder.

  3. Sean Crawford

    Here is a senator giving clear permission, and rhetorical reasons, to not go by polls—his words could be transcribed, laminated, and placed on certain office walls.

    It’s from an interview with CBC radio after he defied his state governor’s veto and the popular will of a supposedly conservative midwest state, Nebraska, to abolish the death penalty.

    My computer won’t play it, but you I’m sure you can hear it here
    Go down the page to the photograph for a six minute interview.



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