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Why the United States Gets Such Bad Politicians


There is a thirteenth-century Japanese sage who wrote

If the Minds of Living Beings Are Impure, Their Land Is Also Impure…

If Their Minds Are Pure, So Is Their Land.

This has high relevance to contemporary American politics. We get terrible politicians who do almost nothing to solve America’s problems. Why are they all so terrible? Because they are exactly what our voters want.

Most voters are absolutely unwilling to make whatever sacrifices it would take to realistically solve the problems of the nation or the world. Consider:


1. We want to stop global warming. However, we do not want any reduction in our levels of consumption or our energy use. We scream when gasoline gets expensive. We would die if someone imposed a 55 mph speed limit on our highways – or if they told us to reduce the use of our air conditioners.

2. We want complete mastery over world affairs, being able to tell the rest of the world what to do – but we want to pay no taxes or incur any casualties on our side in doing so. We want no human rights abuses, no ethnic massacres, defense of women’s rights, protection of members of our religion and a saving of our favorite wildlife species, at no financial cost to ourselves and without anyone we know having to be in an actual military battle to stand up to the dictators who are doing all those bad things.

3. We want to pay minimal taxes or no taxes. We want a full range of government services for ourselves and to our families. If no one else except us gets government services, that’s fine. We want free health care and free college educations for our children. If members of that group get health care or free college educations, we scream.

4. We want Social Security to be saved. However, we do not want to contribute more to Social Security while we are alive and we refuse to retire later so the fund can become actuarially solvent.

5. We want better roads, mass transportation, and mental health treatment. However, none of the facilities for the above should be in our neighborhoods.

What Americans want are cost-free, sacrifice-free solutions.

Cost-free, sacrifice-free solutions do not exist for many of the problems on our planet.

We do not want a doctor who tells us we have to lose weight, stop smoking and exercise more. We want to live long healthy lives while knocking down six beers during happy hour and cutting loose on the all-you-can-eat buffet.

The doctor who tells us we have to lose weight, stop smoking and exercise more loses his job.

So it is the case with American politicians.

There is no way we stop global warming, save the planet, keep the schools we want, keep the science we want, maintain the foreign posture we want, or even save our own retirements unless we make some sacrifices. We are actually going to have to pay some taxes. We are actually going to have to conserve scarce resources by using less. Nobody wants to hear that.

Any politician who discusses these “inconvenient truths” with voters will lose in the primaries – or if there is no primary – lose in the general elections. Truth-telling politicians find themselves out of politics and condemned to irrelevancy.

So how do you get yourself elected in the United States? It is actually the same for the left, the center and the right.

You tell magic-pixie-fairy-dust stories of the wonderful changes that will occur if good people like you are voted into office.

You demonize the policies of politicians of the other side, who to be frank, are merely selling a different version of magic-pixie-fairy-dust policies which are easy to attack.

You play identity politics hoping that people will vote you in because you are “one of them”.

You focus public attention on issues that are easy to understand. The opposition candidate’s sex life. The opposition candidate’s sound bites at a hearing eighteen years ago. A single solution to a single problem seems easy to understand. “Hey, let’s build a wall”. “Hey, let’s give tax breaks for wind farms!”

You never, never, never tell a straight story about what behavior the voters would have to change in themselves in order to turn around the most basic of our public problems.

The people demand snake-oil salesmen and political entertainers. The people get snake-oil salesmen and political entertainers.

When the American public gets serious about making sacrifices to save the environment or programs they care about, then a technically oriented politician could devise a sensible program that would actually save the environment or the programs Americans care about.

In the meantime, meet your new gym trainer who will get you physically fit by handing you 64-ounce buckets of buttered popcorn with cheese on top.

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