Repeating the fallacy of Plato’s Republic, in which the great philosopher explained why society should be governed by people exactly like Plato, Ross Douthat uses the occasion of Mickey Kaus’ Senate candidacy to argue that “more pundits and policy wonks” should “throw their hats into the political ring.”
We’ve reached a point in American life where the line between celebrities, television personalities and politicians is tissue-thin. But when non-politicians who actually know something about policy — be they political journalists, think-tankers or public intellectuals — get involved in government, it’s almost always as spokespeople, speechwriters and policy advisers, rather than as actual candidates for office.
American politics is much more of a retail business than politics in Canada or the U.K., and the kind of people who write about policy for a living aren’t usually the kind of people who excel at (or have any interest in) glad-handing and fundraising. But the past exceptions to this rule have included some of our most interesting politicians — think of the ex-historian Newt Gingrich, or the ex-sociologist Daniel Patrick Moynihan. What’s more, many of today’s brightest lawmakers, from Ron Wyden on the left to Paul Ryan on the right, are people who seem like they could have been bloggers, journalists, or professors of public policy in another lifetime. And a pundit or public intellectual doesn’t have to actually win a bid for office to have a healthy effect on a political ecosystem: See William F. Buckley’s famous campaign for New York mayor, for instance.
Ezra Klein thinks the chief barrier is money.
The only problem is that the people who spent all their time writing blog posts and reading policy documents didn’t spend any of their time building the fundraising network that would allow them a viable candidacy. Time is fungible, and if you spend it learning stuff, you’re not spending it glad-handing with rich people.
The thing about the current political system is that no matter how much you like or agree with a politician, unless they’re self-funded, you have to look at them and recognize that this is someone whose core competency is spending 30 percent of his or her time asking people for money, meeting and talking with people who might have money to give in the future, and generally figuring out how to pay to be a politician. That makes them a very weird person.
While that’s all true, people who spend most of their day reading, thinking, and writing about public policy are pretty damned weird ourselves.
It seems to me that the chief barrier to bloggers getting elected to public office isn’t so much their typically introverted personalities or lack of access to money but the mere fact that we’ve accumulated a long paper (pixel?) trail of recording every fool thought that’s passed through our minds over the last several years. Even bright, thoughtful, decent types like Douthat and Klein — and Lord knows, Kaus and Joyner — have written things that would kill a campaign dead, dead, dead if it showed up in an attack ad.