Thursday, October 09, 2003

Mickey Kaus and Andrew Sullivan are strangely giddy over the news: a state with a strong populist tradition has elected, by a plurality in a multi-way race, a charismatic, muscle-bound showbiz figure with a weak political track record, a somewhat tainted sexual past, and a suspiciously vague policy platform. I suppose Kaus and Sullivan are buoyed by their memories of the spectacularly successful result the last time this happened....

The key factors in the above discription, of course, are "weak political track record" and "suspiciously vague policy platform". It's a common myth in democratic countries that a good, decent, intelligent leader can simply look at each of the day's issues, choose the sensible position to take in every case, and then take it, thus winning the accolades of a grateful populace imbued with the same straighforward good sense. Unfortunately, the public are neither particularly imbued with good sense, nor inclined to use what little of it they have to overcome their own selfish interests, prejudices and superstitions.

Fortunately, though, democracy doesn't need a particularly wise, high-minded electorate. All it needs is a collection of people with enough vigorously competing interests, prejudices and superstitions that the exhausting task of brokering among them tends to impede leaders from causing any grievous harm. A really superb leader can even spot a few nuggets of popular consensus hidden in the cacophony, and cater to them--usually, though not always, to the good.

What almost always sinks the "outsider" candidate is his or her inability to recognize and take advantage of those instances of consensus. Elected to knock some sense into slimy, business-as-usual politicians, the outsider typically believes him- or herself to have a deep, natural rapport with the common people that allows him or her to disdain pandering and poll-taking and simply intuit what the public wants. Of course, such a person inevitably confuses "what the public wants" with what he or she personally wants, and ends up spearheading unpopular campaigns on behalf of hobbyhorse causes.

Perhaps the latest outsider candidate, faced with a colossal state budget deficit, a hostile state legislature, and a choppy economy, can rapidly acquire the skills that more polished politicians take years to hone, and build a solid constituency for various popular initiatives while offending as few voters as possible. And with roughly the same likelihood, the politicians he defeated might take up bodybuilding and learn to excel at the art of playing a Hollywood action film hero.

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