The president is not your messiah

Jonah Goldberg explores what I consider to be the most deplorable feature (out of a list as long as the Mississippi River) of today’s Democratic and Republican parties:

In 1970, Richard Nixon nominated G. Harrold Carswell to fill Abe Fortas’ seat on the Supreme Court. Critics charged that Carswell was a decidedly mediocre jurist. Sen. Roman Hruska’s defense of Carswell and the nomination is considered a minor classic in political spin. In a TV interview, he said, “Even if he were mediocre, there are a lot of mediocre judges and people and lawyers. They are entitled to a little representation, aren’t they? We can’t have all Brandeises and Frankfurters and Cardozos.”

I like this anecdote for a bunch of reasons. Hruska was a good man and he had a perfectly respectable—at times even laudatory—political career. This episode is the only thing he’s remembered for by those other than his friends and family and some Nebraska political junkies. It got ample space in his obituaries, and it’s a good cautionary tale about how small slips of the tongue can end up defining you.

But what I really like about this story is how it mangles a way of thinking about representation. There’s a category error buried in it.

I don’t like the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy’s entry on category errors because it reduces them to “infelicitous” statements. On the other hand, I do like its examples of the infelicity of category errors: “The number two is blue,” “The theory of relativity is eating breakfast,” or “Green ideas sleep furiously.”

I love statements like that because they expose how language can become “visible” to our brains when it makes connections between things we don’t expect to be connected. For instance, there are a bunch of versions of the following joke:

Q: What is the difference between an orange?

A: A pencil. Because a vest has no sleeves.

If you laugh at this, it’s because your brain can’t make sense of it, so you enjoy the absurdity. And I think part of that enjoyment stems from the recognition of how language drives how we think about stuff. We like to think language is bound up with rationality. The words we use align with reality, and reality is governed by reason in some fundamental sense: 2+2 = 4 because when I take two rocks and add two more rocks, I get four rocks. But language doesn’t have to be bound by reason. I can say “two plus two equals a duck,” but, so far, reality can’t make that happen. In other words, language can put distance between the world and our brains.

A more reliable form of humor points out connections between things we either don’t see or thought we were the only ones to notice. A whole branch of comedy boils down to “Did you ever notice … ?” These jokes work because they confirm pre-rational intuitions or make irrational connections between things like cause and effect. Don’t believe me? Pull my finger and I’ll prove it to you.

Anyway, the reason I don’t like reducing category errors to merely absurd statements is that I think category errors are the bane of politics. Everyone recognizes that “the theory of relativity is breakfast” is nonsense. But when Chris Rock said Barack Obama was the “dad of the country,” lots of very smart people nodded. Of course, lots of conservatives rolled their eyes, but not out of rejection of a category error. Partisan animosity did most of the work getting those eyes to roll. Likewise, when supporters of Trump—or Reagan or Eisenhower or whomever—made similar statements, partisan opponents rolled their eyes. The idea that the president is the father of the “American family” is a bit of political boilerplate going back to George Washington. But at least Washington’s claim to that metaphorical title depended on the act of creating the country in the first place.

But the idea that the president is akin to a parent is a category error. The president is not my boss. He’s definitely not my father. He has no power, moral or legal, to tell me how to live my life beyond the very limited power of persuasion and a few contestable and narrow emergency powers. My dad could tell me to give my seat to a lady on the bus, and he did it many times. The president can’t.

The “body politic”—corpus politicumis one of the most fraught category errors in history. It was tolerable as a mystical medieval metaphor, but in the 19th and 20th century, intellectuals grabbed all sorts of pseudo-scientific nonsense off the shelf and argued that nation states were organic entities. Herbert Croly, one of the co-founders of The New Republic, said society was just “an enlarged individual.” Edward Alsworth Ross, arguably the most influential sociologist of his day, believed society is “a living thing, actuated, like all the higher creatures, by the instinct for self-preservation.” When Woodrow Wilson rejected the system of “checks and balances” inherent to the Constitution, it was in service to these ideas. He rejected the vision of the Founders as naively Newtonian rather than Darwinian. “The trouble with the [Founders’] theory,” Wilson wrote, “is that government is not a machine, but a living thing. It falls, not under the theory of the universe, but under the theory of organic life. It is accountable to Darwin, not to Newton. It is modified by its environment, necessitated by its tasks, shaped to its functions by the sheer pressure of life. No living thing can have its organs offset against each other, as checks, and live.”

Wilson was wrong in every regard. Government is a machine in the sense that it is technology, a manufactured system designed for specific purposes. It is not in any way a living thing bound by the theory of organic life. Checks and balances work precisely because Congress isn’t like a spleen and the judiciary isn’t like a liver. Moreover, I’m not entirely sure that our organs don’t work “against” each other in a checks-and-balancey kind of way insofar as various organs regulate each other. But I could be wrong about that.

Nazis were obsessed with the idea that the Aryan nation was an organic entity, and that idea gave them permission to see other groups as “parasites.”

Now, some stickler might object to what I’m talking about by arguing that these theories were just bad metaphors and analogies. And that’s fine. But when we don’t consciously recognize that an idea is merely metaphorical—never mind a bad metaphor—we take it to be literal, or close enough to literal to act as if it were.

You could say category errors we like are just called metaphors or analogies. It’s sort of like “censorship.” Pretty much everyone is in favor of censorship, but we only use the word censorship for the kinds of censorship we don’t like. I used to have great fun arguing with libertarians of the right and left about this. They’d say something like, “I’m against all forms of censorship.” And I’d respond, Socratically, “So you think it’s fine for TV networks to replace Saturday morning cartoons with mock snuff films or simulated child pornography?” (I have to insert the “mock” and “simulated” qualifiers to avoid clever “but real snuff films and child pornography are illegal” rejoinders). Eventually, most would end up arguing that censoring that stuff isn’t really censorship, it’s just responsible programming or some other euphemism. Naw, it’s censorship, and I’m fine with that.

Similarly, with metaphors and analogies, if you don’t regularly push back or poke holes in them, people come to accept them as descriptors of reality.

I had no idea I’d be spelunking down this rabbit hole. I planned on writing about the problems with our elites, but I’ll save that for another time. Like the runza peddler said at the Cornhusker game, let’s just circle back to Sen. Hruska.

The other thing I love about Hruska’s representation-for-mediocrities argument is that it mangles the concept of representation. On the surface it kind of makes sense, like an intellectual Potemkin village. For starters, the Supreme Court is not a representative body—or at least it’s not supposed to be. Forget the identity politics arguments about how the court is improved by, say, the presence of a “wise Latina” in ways that it wouldn’t be improved by a “wise Nordic.” Why not put plumbers or electricians on the court? Don’t they deserve representation, too? Although the court has always been top-heavy with Pale Penis People, it’s been utterly monopolized by lawyers.

It’s sort of like the term diversity. Everyone likes to say they’re in favor of diversity, but diversity—much like censorship—is very narrowly defined. We don’t think the NBA would be improved if there was a quota to get more one-legged players or blind people on the court. When I talk to my financial adviser about “diversifying my portfolio,” I never say, “Make sure there’s a healthy balance between good investments and bad investments.” A “balanced diet” doesn’t have a lot of strychnine or razor blades in it.

The idea that the court would be improved by mediocrity takes the familiar political logic of representation and exposes how it can take us in ridiculous directions if we don’t recognize its limitations. It’s funny precisely because it exposes how serious ideas can suddenly become silly by grabbing something from the wrong category and shoving it where it doesn’t belong.

There’s an unwritten rule not to verbalize such things. But a lot of the dysfunction in our politics is Hruskian in reality: Lots of people are fine with mediocrities representing them as long as they “represent” their team. Hruska supported Carswell because he was Nixon’s pick and Nixon deserved a win. Run through the list of politicians garnering passionate support from partisans. Some are smart, many are dumb. Some know how to do their jobs, many don’t have the first clue how policy is made or legislating is done. But the important question is: How often does intelligence or competence even enter into it?

As with diversity and censorship, representation is a broad category that we narrow down in reality—certain kinds of diversity, specific forms of censorship. If we understood representation in its broadest, most categorical sense, Congress should reflect a broad cross section of Americans that would include everything from morons to geniuses, violent criminals to pacifists, physicists to spoken-word poets. But we understand that the filter has to be set with a narrower screen.

The problem is that we have the filter on the wrong settings. If I want to hire an electrician, I might consider all sorts of factors: price, recommendations, availability, etc. But the indispensable qualification would be expertise. I would immediately rule out all people who aren’t electricians. In other words, can they do the job?

Marjorie Taylor Greene—to take a very easy example—is an ignoramus. She doesn’t understand the job she was elected to, but even if she did, she couldn’t do it because she’s not on any committees (because she’s also a bigoted loon). But Republican voters just renominated her, presumably on the grounds that what Congress needs is representation of bigoted lunacy and performative jackassery.

Most other politicians aren’t elected for such ludicrous reasons. But many of them are elected to perform and entertain in ways that have nothing to do with the job itself. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is no fool and she has an adequate academic grasp of the job, but she’s also among the least effective members of Congress. She’d have to step up her game to be a mediocre legislator if effective legislating determined the bulk of her grade. But it doesn’t for her voters, or for the media that lavishes attention and praise on her.

When it comes to hiring a politician, there are a bunch of things that can or should be on the checklist: ideological agreement, good character, patriotism, a good work ethic, a record of success, etc. You can even include things like religion, height, attractiveness, or odor. This is a democracy after all, and people can vote for whatever reason they want. But one of the things that should be non-negotiable—not as a matter of law, but as a matter of civic hygiene—is the candidate’s ability to do the job.

But for a lot of voters, the job description has been rewritten without even a minute of debate or discussion. Do they hate the other guys enough? Are they entertaining? Are they angry enough? Are they loyal to my team?

No wonder so few can do the actual job. That’s not what they were hired for.

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