There is no question that Americans are more sour on politics and politicians than at any time in living memory. A profession that confers upon its practitioners the title “The Honorable” is now seen as the least honorable of all lines of work. Or, as one pollster found, somewhere between cockroaches and traffic jams in the public’s estimation. No surprise then that the percentage of Americans who refuse to identify with either major political party is at its highest level ever in more than 75 years of public opinion polling.
Why did so many people in this country hold public officials in fairly high regard in the past, and so few can stand them today? The search for culprits doesn’t go on for long before encountering political professionalization and civic sciencification.
It would surprise many to know how much of the money raised for political campaigns isn’t spent on appeals for support. A huge amount of campaign funds are spent on the salaries and consulting fees of political professionals and other costs associated with their services. A vast industry has grown up around modern politics, and the beast needs constant feeding.
Pollsters. Speechwriters. Media consultants. Telemarketers. Direct mail firms. Advertising agencies. List brokers and microtargeters. Fundraising specialists. These professionals make a living by selling candidates for public office the way Madison Avenue sells hair care products. At the core of today’s conventional political practice is the idea that there is a formula for political campaigning. Follow the formula and win.
Almost everything political consultants do for their customers makes them more fake. They have a formula for everything . . . even one for faking authenticity. Because of the need to pay all the handlers, most of today’s winning politicians have a lot of money behind them. But all the money can’t buy them love. It can’t even buy them respect. It only pays for the kind of marketing formerly reserved for bottles of perfume and boxes of laundry detergent. They still end up being seen as insincere, untrustworthy and self-promoting. They aren’t trusted. Their greatest source of strength – namely money – corrodes their authenticity and trustworthiness.
All of this goes to show that good politics is not formulaic. Politics is an art, not a science. Politics is about relationships. Relationship building is an artful enterprise if there ever was one.
True democracy depends on the involvement of amateur citizens, and our political system has been commandeered by professionals. Now more than ever, American politics needs an infusion of amateurism. It’s perhaps never been harder in our nation’s history for amateurs to gain a foothold in the public arena. But given how Americans are feeling about politics and politicians these days, there probably hasn’t ever been a time when such a rich reward awaits those willing to swim against the currents of political professionalization.