Gaming the System

“It is impossible to tell which of the two dispositions we find in men is more harmful in a republic, that which seeks to maintain an established position or that which has none but seeks to acquire it.” — Niccolo Machiavelli, c. 1515.

Soon after Paul Ryan’s ascendancy to the Republican Vice Presidential candidacy, he flew to Las Vegas to meet with a hotel room full of wealthy investors. They were there, we might suppose, to look over the merchandise and to assess its value to them in the coming months and years, provided—God willing—that their money and influence prevailed and the American people returned the throne to its rightful owners after a brief hiatus. That such bald-faced dealing goes on in American politics is no surprise. After all, this is the old normal brought out of the smoke-filled back rooms and given a shave, a fresh suit of clothes, some cheery one-liners about “opportunity” and “economic realignment” and made to sing and dance in the public square. We’re used to it by now. And that is what is disheartening about the current grand experiment in democracy.

Those who lean toward the liberal tradition should not congratulate themselves for good taste in morality either, since no one ascends Capitol Hill without having first bowed the knee to Mammon. At least that is what we are led to believe, and without first-hand experience how are we to refute it? There is so much that relies on trust in the political realm that we find our limited supply used up with nothing much to show for it.

We like to think that in electing a person to the Presidency we have first fairly assessed his character. We look to opinions by the press, statements by the candidates, endorsements by the parties, and most especially, actions taken. In the glare of campaign publicity every flaw, every hot mike statement, every photo op becomes a lens through which we might examine them with a critical, if not discerning, eye. 

Cicero, Roman statesman and grand orator, wrote to his brother Marcus in 64 BC, advising him on running a campaign for political office, by counseling, “For a candidate must be a chameleon, adapting to each person he meets, changing his expression and speech as necessary.” Cicero notes that Marcus is courteous and thoughtful, “but you can be rather stiff at times.” No stranger to political machinations and intrigues, Cicero urges his brother to learn the art of flattery, “a disgraceful thing in normal life but essential when you are running for office.” In other words, even in ancient Rome, the campaign was all about appearances, not about substance.

Cicero is up front and center in this season, especially his letter to his brother. James Carville, former Machiavelli to Bill Clinton, has quoted it at length with approval as an effective playbook for candidate Obama to follow. Others have done so for Romney. The letter appears, with irony, in Lapham’s Quarterly for Fall 2012. Although Cicero may appear calculating by our standards, he was, in his own time, something of a model for public officials. Incorruptible and uncompromising in his personal morality, he nevertheless knew his way around Roman politics and, more importantly, he understood human nature. It is both disconcerting and strangely reassuring that so little has changed over the centuries. 

It’s a game, Cicero seems to be hinting; play it well and you can change things for the better. It’s a utilitarian argument that many a public official, church leader, statesman, and citizen has used to justify bent actions leading to a straight-arrow outcome. But there are two potential outcomes of such actions that cannot be dismissed. 

The first is the polarization of positions, each extreme quick to portray the other in the worst possible light. While the name-calling and mud-slinging is irritating and distracting, it’s not dangerous unless it actually threatens our position in the world. Politicians can kick sand in each others’ faces in their own playground, but when lies are daily compounded with interest on the world stage then it’s time to put the country ahead of the candidates. 

The second—and by far the more dangerous of the two— is that the citizenry, in every generation, comes to realize that politics falls far short of the enterprise it claims to be. Far from advocating on behalf of the people, the elected enjoy the spoils of their war upon the electorate. We’d be touchingly naive not to recognize this, but that betrayal of trust corrodes the very beams and braces that support the structure of government. Realizing this provokes cynicism and indifference. The game is rigged and we find ourselves, like the farmyard animals in Orwell’s Animal Farm, unable to tell the pigs from the humans.  Jean-Jacques Rousseau presumes us to be in a social contract and says, “As soon as public service ceases to be the main concern of the citizens and they come to prefer to serve the state with their purse rather than their person, the state is already close to ruin. . . As soon as someone says of the business of the state, ‘What does it matter to me?’—then the state must be reckoned lost.”

Sometimes it feels like we’re living out Yeats’ Second Coming: “The best lack all conviction/While the worst are full of passionate intensity.” Is it wrong to believe in the promise of democracy even though those who would govern us don’t seem to? 

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