For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong,” H.L. Mencken wrote. That truth has sailed over the heads of many seeking elected office. More to the point, the national mood embraces simple but wrong answers, and rejects candidates whose intelligence leads them to complex, difficult solutions. This is nothing new, but it seems to recur in waves, depending on the state of the nation.
Americans frustrated with a moribund economy and an unclear way out of it welcome candidates who confidently assert that the ills of the nation have come because the wrong people are separating the wheat from the chaff. Those in power, angry voters conclude, lack the moral compass to know which is the wheat and which is the chaff.
That sentiment is clear in the “throw the bums out” response that has swept the country. It is wrong.
Governing is a complex business. Voters may like the notion of putting people in power whose ideological living rooms look like their own. But governing is not done from an armchair. It is responding to unimagined crises — a leaking oil well, banks on the verge of collapse, currency manipulation in China or a flood in the Midwest. No ideological compass points the way to manage such problems.
The philosophical orientation of a candidate is important. But voters should not be electing a collection of opinions. Instead, they should evaluate candidates on their political values — determining whether they favor easing business regulations, taxing the rich, a smaller military, giving states more autonomy, etc. — but also on their ability to govern. Governing, which has become a dirty word, is working within a two-party system to find an approach that, while far from perfect from either perspective, moves the ball forward.
Most distressing in this electoral climate is the disdain many voters have for intelligence. They like candidates who comfort them by betraying the same resentments they harbor against anonymous deadbeats and bureaucrats, elitists and idealists.
Shouldn’t voters demand leaders whose breadth of experiences and accomplishments are beyond the norm? Whose energy, focus and doggedness in finding solutions are at the 99th percentile?
In speaking about tea party-backed Christine O’Donnell, the Senate candidate in Delaware, journalist Joe Klein told a talk radio host that in this political climate, “incompetency passes for authenticity,” and that the most effective candidate pitch for votes goes something like, “I’m not a politician — I’m stupid.”
In an editorial last week, The New York Times lamented that in Wisconsin, Russ Feingold, a moderate Democrat who has often voted with Republicans in the Senate, is trailing Republican businessman Ron Johnson, who has made not knowing details a centerpiece of his campaign.
“Mr. Feingold’s independent mind, and his refusal to follow the big-money line on issues like trade, campaign finance and Wall Street reform, should have endeared him to Tea Party members and other independents who are angry at Washington conformists. If they had taken the time to listen,” the paper wrote.
Just as intelligence, competence and experience lead to success in the business world, they also are the tools needed for effective government.