Friday, February 3, 2012

George Carlin - Wrong About Politicians

In general, I'm a big fan of George Carlin, but one of his most famous routines has always bothered me, nagging like a loose tooth. It's particularly aggravating because he names his error, but doesn't recognize it. So even though George isn't around any more, this Tireless Agorist will attempt to explain what George missed, and why it matters, and pull that annoying loose tooth once and for all. First, the pertinent portion of his rant, with the problematic sentence bolded.
"Now, there's one thing you might have noticed I don't complain about: politicians. Everybody complains about politicians. Everybody says they suck. Well, where do people think these politicians come from? They don't fall out of the sky. They don't pass through a membrane from another reality. They come from American parents and American families, American homes, American schools, American churches, American businesses and American universities, and they are elected by American citizens."
For extra fun, here's George's complete diatribe in video. Go ahead, take a minute to watch it. It's classic George Carlin. I'll still be here when you get back.

George is right that politicians don't fall out of the sky. He's also right that "they come from American parents and American families, American homes, American schools, American churches, American businesses and American universities, and they are elected by American citizens." But his error was in not recognizing that they actually do pass through a membrane; the selective process of political gamesmanship. There are numerous hurdles to be cleared in the political game, and their height increases as power concentrates. The hurdles are much lower for city councilman than they are for U.S. Senator or President.

The Political Hurdles

We all learned that anyone can grow up to be President, and perhaps, in the most idealistic terms, that's true. Anyone who decided at a very early age that the office of the President was their life's goal and worked diligently to reach that goal could possibly, one day, convince a majority of the voters in that particular election that he should inhabit the Oval Office. But the path to the oval office, indeed any political office, requires clearing multiple significant hurdles that George left out of the equation.

Abstracted, the argument is this: politicians are primarily that subset of the people who believe it's right for some people to tell others what to do and how to do it, self-confident enough to believe they're qualified for the job, and willing to use the coercive power of government to exercise that control. They believe it so strongly that they decide to make it their life's work, instead of being, perhaps, a mechanic, a small businessman, an artist, a doctor, or a writer. They believe it so strongly that they generally spend years studying the intricacies of the law, and more years associating primarily with people who believe as they do, wheeling and dealing to advance their political career. They believe it so strongly that they are willing to court wealthy donors with promises to be delivered on once they ascend to power, compromise their principles to do so, and spend considerable effort convincing those who currently hold the reins of power that they are team players.

Only that tiny fraction of citizens willing and able to surpass all those hurdles will reliably reach political office. We'll explore each of those arguments in detail after the break.

The Social Contract Hurdle

The first hurdle may surprise most people; it just seems to be the way the world works. To become President, you must first believe that it is right that some people should tell others what they are allowed to do, what they are not allowed to do, and that they may use "legitimized" force in the form of government to do so. This is often referred to as the "social contract." Most people have little trouble accepting this as a fact of life.1

However, even if one accepts the concept of the social contract, there is legitimate discussion to be had concerning the extent of that contract. At its simplest, the social contract provides for the protection of each person's right to life, the liberty to do as he freely chooses and enjoy such property as the fruits of his labor produce, as long as he does not infringe on the equal rights of others. Contrast that to a government that today regulates nearly every aspect of commerce, redistributes wealth among citizens, punishes its citizens for a broad range of "crimes" that do not infringe on any other person's rights, requires its citizens to engage in a number of activities they may not wish to voluntarily pursue, aggressively intervenes in the internal affairs of other nations, and even secretly assassinates its own citizens without due process if the executive branch judges them a threat to national security.

Most people jump this hurdle early in life, or are intelligent enough to pretend they have. Those who insist that the social contract be narrowly defined, or declare it an invalid concept, are generally referred to as libertarians in polite discourse, and as radicals, anarchists, or kooks behind their backs. There's ample evidence that those who accept only a narrowly-defined social contract, or who argue its illegitimacy, either show little interest in the political process or will be eliminated from the race early on by other hurdles that come their way. The fingers of one hand are sufficient to count those politicians on the national stage who fit within this category. As we explore additional hurdles, the reasons for that will become clear.

The Career Choice Hurdle

As we mature, we begin to puzzle out our interests, and how we'd like to spend the majority of our time. Many people decide that they want a job to make money and buy stuff, and that's as far as the analysis goes. Others choose careers in the arts, crafts or sciences. Many small business people start out in this category, and decide that entrepreneurship is the best way to make a living in their field, thereby taking on the additional burdens of management. Others are attracted to careers that match their helpful personalities, such as the medical profession, charity and social work, firemen, and some members of police forces and the military.

Only a small subset of people decide that they want a career focused on directing other people and setting the policies that others must follow. This includes those who choose management as a career, politicians, and some members of police forces and the military, among others.

Once again, this proves a useful divide. The number of artisans, tradesmen, scientists, doctors, charity workers, and others of similar personality types who become professional politicians or hold high political office is exceedingly small compared to their representation in the general population.

The Higher Education Hurdle

If you're planning a political career, better plan on college too. Almost 95 percent of those serving in the 111th Congress have earned at least a bachelor's degree. The local community college probably isn't going to cut it, either. Harvard's number one on the list for the 111th Congress, with 15 graduates. Stanford and Yale round out the top three, followed by UCLA and Georgetown University. If you really want to shine, though, don't stop at a bachelor's degree. 58 Senators and 178 Representatives, or 44% of Congress, are lawyers. Nobody ever claimed the hallowed halls would be cheap or easy to get into.

The Personality Hurdle

The rest of the hurdles, although not so easily quantified, are nonetheless real on a very personal level. It takes a special personality to be a political candidate. The product you're selling is an image of yourself that the voters want to vote for. You're going to be meeting dozens or hundreds of powerful people you need to sell, and thousands of voters. You're going to be selling that image in every venue from one-on-one meetings to speeches in front of hundreds or thousands of people. Every interview, every public utterance has the potential to send you soaring in the polls or crashing to defeat. The smallest indiscretion in your personal life is going to be trotted out and examined in the full light of day by those most strongly opposed to seeing you gain office. Wallflowers and rebels need not apply, regardless of their ability to actually perform the job they're pursuing.

The Political Connections Hurdle

Campaigns don't just happen. There's a lot of grunt work involved. A mentor or two to smooth your way into the political system will have to be cultivated early on. Outsiders aren't generally the first choice of party regulars who have been loyal participants in the party machine for decades. Knowing all those regulars and getting them to take you seriously doesn't happen overnight. You have to learn who the real power brokers are, and make sure they're on your side. Somebody knows where the bodies are buried; you want them on your side, not your opponent's. The best political operatives - campaign managers, press spokesmen, publicity experts, donation bundlers - aren't looking for somebody wet behind the ears to bet their careers on. Just as in any other job, cheerfully carrying out the grunt work, years of paying your dues and a willingness to wait in line for those higher up the ladder - or the ability to knock them off discreetly - are invaluable contributions to your aspirations.

The Wealthy Donor Hurdle

Campaigns aren't cheap, and raising huge amounts of money by ten-dollar donations from thousands of every-day citizen voters is a really tough way to go. Fortunately, there are plenty of high-powered lobbyists standing by to line up big contributions in return for a sympathetic ear and a conduit from their legal team to someone who can sponsor legislation and get it passed. There are plenty of donation bundlers out there to handle the same chore. No reason to break a sweat trying to convince thousands of voters to chip in their hard-earned money to enable you to destroy your opponent through expensively-produced attack ads and well-placed editorials, when you can go right to the power players.

The Compromised Principles Hurdle

Let's make a deal. All those power brokers, campaign staffers, donors and ex-opponents aren't just in this for the fun, or for the money. They could get plenty of those in other ways. And once you're in office, deals are the order of the day. Don't expect your pet project to receive the unbridled enthusiasm of your fellow politicians if you're not equally enthused about their grandiose plans. This is no place to stand on principle, unless you're willing to be the lone dissenting vote on a regular basis, and spend a lot of time explaining to your constituents and those who financed your campaign why none of your initiatives are getting anywhere. Remember, there's another election coming up next year, or in two years, or four, or six... and there's nothing sadder than an unemployed politician.


So there we have it. Those who attain political office have cleared some version of each of the seven hurdles we've considered. They are far from a general cross-section of the American public. Sorry, George, that dog won't hunt. And it would do us all good to remember those hurdles the next time some smooth-talking politician claims he's just one of the little people like you and me.

...and that's all I have to say about that.

1The social contract is rarely questioned. It's generally treated as a given; the only acceptable argument is what it covers. Most political conflicts can be recognized as attempts to define the social contract. Given that the vast majority of schools are government financed and government approved, staffed with government-approved teachers, filled with government-approved textbooks, and administered in government-approved ways, it's hardly surprising that the concept becomes ingrained after it is reinforced throughout twelve or sixteen or more years of schooling.


  1. You forgot the "Dead Hooker Hurdle." Acts of extreme stupidity or youthful indiscretion need to be avoided or at least covered up completely. Leaving photographic or video evidence "in the field" is a big no-no.

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