What Television Teaches Us About Modern Politics

The great (and, of late, unjustly smeared) political economist Jim Buchanan often described the central analytical orientation of public choice economics as “politics without romance,” combining methodological individualism and a vision of politics as exchange into an intellectual program that, for those who embraced it, would rid the study of politics of arbitrary, romanticized ideas of socially conscious voters and dutiful public servants. It would subject all actors in the political process—politicians, bureaucrats, lobbyists, and voters—to the same rigorous inquiry which economists had used to understand private actors in a market setting, understanding them as economic actors maximizing their own utility, variously defined, subject to the constraints of their positions. Along with fellow pioneers Duncan Black, Anthony Downs, Gordon Tullock, and Mancur Olson, Buchanan took the first steps down a new road that still yields fruitful research to this day.

The influence of public choice on academic understandings of politics has been extensive but not universal: on the one hand, the annual Public Choice Society Meeting is an innovative and well attended gathering; on the other, one can earn a doctorate in political science from a mainstream American political science department and never once learn of Buchanan or even of public choice. In popular discussion, however, this subfield of economics remains tragically obscure; contra conspiracy theorist Nancy MacLean, I can say from personal knowledge that most Tea Partiers have never heard of, much less flocked to, Jim Buchanan’s work. Indeed, I would contend that both right and left today could stand to gain immensely from a better understanding of the logic of public choice, and as evidence I submit the soap-opera-like portrayals of politics in modern entertainment and the loss of both economic nuance and moral substance that they demonstrate.

From the late 1990’s to the mid 2000’s, NBC’s The West Wing offered viewers a mixed vision of politics that at times showed a distinct cognizance of politics-as-exchange but which, at the end of the day, generally showed romance and idealism as triumphant forces which held sway over the fate of America. Protagonists Joshua Lyman, Sam Seaborn, and Toby Ziegler toiled to further a genius, Democratic, Nobel-Prize-winning president’s agenda (and often their own) against an onslaught of opposition from stubborn special interests and Republicans who just didn’t get their vision of big government as a boundless provider that, despite some missteps, was an overwhelming net benefit to the American people. Throughout it all, we were constantly, explicitly reminded that the people who work in the White House are some of the smartest people in the world (!) whose biggest fault is not fighting hard enough for what they believe.

In the end, I must confess that despite its often fantastical presentation of political actors and their intentions, it was an outstanding series and a personal favorite of mine. If one approaches it not as a realistic account of how politics is done but as a romantic realist portrayal of how we would like it to be, then aside from one’s potential disagreements with the protagonists’ chosen policies, we can nonetheless admire their integrity and conviction and wish, even as we detest their conclusions, that our enemies had such character in reaching their own. Had it come with a disclaimer before the show—“Viewer Beware: This is How Politics SHOULD Work; not how it DOES!,”—I would find its approach essentially blameless. As it stands, it is difficult to not worry that idealized representations such as The West Wing which are offered without such disclaimers have contributed to the American public’s bewilderment when they send another crop of clean-cut, well-spoken, bright-eyed candidates to Washington only to be utterly confused with their failures in a year’s time.

A more recent trend in popular representations of politics, however, concerns me much more. That is the turn in popular representations of politics from the romantic realism of The West Wing to the nihilistic amorality of currently popular political dramas such as Scandal (which recently went off-air) and House of Cards. Whereas I have read some libertarians hailing House of Cards, in particular, for putting forward a view of politicians as malicious and scheming, thereby stripping government of its romance, the reality is that the messages of either show do no such thing and only further entrench the errors in popular conceptions of political culture. Both shows are so exaggerated in their portrayals of political malfeasance, relying on portrayals of politicians and their aides committing every sort of crime up to and including murder to persuade the viewer of their corruption, that they lose all scope of the true ills—both moral and institutional—of our modern political system.

Ayn Rand once wrote—and I am paraphrasing—that most men believe integrity consists of something as simple as not pickpocketing another’s wallet on a daily basis, but if that were true we would have to conclude that 99.9% of men in society have perfect integrity—a fact which we know to be untrue. Rather, integrity, she argued, is

“the recognition of the fact that you cannot fake your consciousness… that man is an indivisible entity, an integrated unit of two attribute: of matter and consciousness, and that he may permit no breach between body and mind, between action and thought, between his life and his convictions… that courage and confidence are practical necessities, that courage is the practical form of being true to existence, of being true to truth, and confidence is the practical form of being true to one’s own consciousness.”[i]

Popular portrayals of political malfeasance such as House of Cards and Scandal reduce integrity to the political equivalent of not pickpocketing someone’s wallet, lowering the bar for what constitutes bad behavior to such an abysmal reach that even the most crooked, morally bankrupt politician in Washington or our state capitols can glide over it with ease. Political malfeasance, they argue, is luring your enemies into adultery and blackmailing them, so in the real world the cabinet secretary who auctions off access in exchange for special contracts to her relatives has done little to nothing of import. Political malfeasance, they suggest, is a “fixer” who navigates Washington politics by keeping a trained hitman on staff, so in the real world the congressman voting to support tax subsidies for special interests at the expense of his constituents hardly even counts. Political malfeasance, they contend, is murder, and of what consequence is a meager lie relative to cold-blooded murder?

On the one hand, such hyperbolic dramatizations lead viewers and voters astray by convincing them that the source of political dysfunction is to be found entirely in corruption and conspiracy theories, callous psychopathy emitting from smoke-filled back rooms—all, of course, populated by members of the party we individually oppose. No consideration is given to the endogenous problems of perverse incentives, economic calculation, and the absence of residual claimancy which plague the workings of public institutions and, by themselves, wreak enough havoc to explain most of government’s failures without need for the added (but very real) variable of a morally bankrupt cultural environment. Far from condemning government, such stories absolve the institution of the state from any wrongdoing and place all accountability upon the individuals running it. On their premise, if the world had more Sam Seaborn’s than Frank Underwood’s, government could be a faultlessly productive enterprise, free of institutional failures and limitations.

That said, having long argued here for the central role of ideas, reason, and a rational morality to the achievement of a proper political system, I cannot deny the importance of individual character and ideological values. To deny the role of non-material values and rewards is to reduce man to the status of lower animals and to neglect the motivational power of his normative views. As Rand wrote, “In spite of all their irrationalities, inconsistencies, hypocrisies and evasions, the majority of men will not act, in major issues, without a sense of being morally right and will not oppose the morality they have accepted. They will break it, they will cheat on it, but they will not oppose it.”[ii] Man surely does act according to his fundamental premises, whether he is explicitly conscious of them or not.

Today’s popular portrayals of moral failure in politics, however, demonstrate the moral bankruptcy of our age. It is indicative of what moral permissiveness pervades today’s culture that in order to illustrate a character’s moral failings we must involve him in a murder or that in order to show him failing in loyalty to his professional commitments he must be guilty of seedy cash bribery or high treason. No longer does the broken promise or the exception-making abandonment of principles register as condemnable. Our popular sense of moral nuance and the challenge of discerning good from bad are lost. The underlying cause: the dissolution of a shared moral outlook to the point that the only things we as a culture can agree to be wrong are violent crimes. Unfortunately, great nations are not generally undone by violent crimes and invading barbarians but by the million moral defaults which preceded them on the lips of civilized political actors.

Against such a backdrop as this, our threshold for moral wrongs ever growing until only the most blatant of offenses can register with our cultural nervous system, it becomes clearer why, for a year, our national politics have been consumed with accusations of treason and criminal wrongdoing by one party against the other. Without either condoning or dismissing any one such accusation, I will simply note the tragedy that blatant criminality, along with such unquestionable bads as racism, sexism, homophobia, etc., are the only charges that still bear weight in a country so morally divided that the classic offenses of dishonesty, injustice, and sophistry are no longer agreed upon as condemnable but curved on a scale dictated by the perpetrator’s and victim’s personalities, positions, and party affiliations.

If we are to remedy this condition, we must reform both the permissiveness of our moral attitudes and the romantic idealization of the nature of politics. We must insist that just as the relative desirability of market institutions is not dependent upon a view of men as angels, even their being such angels would not salvage the institutional faults of statist controls; and just as the failure of government institutions does not depend upon immorality on the part of those running them, no justly and fairly constituted institution will long remain such if it is populated by individuals who have no regard for integrity and no distaste for malfeasance short of kidnapping, murder, and treason. An institution is neither “only as good” as the people who populate it nor are their characters “only as good” as the output of the institution. Their integrities are mutually independent, necessary but not sufficient conditions for human flourishing, and, in the long run, neither can substitute for the failure of the other.

In the meantime, I will opt for The West Wing’s brand of romanticism, with the proper disclaimers attached, rather than the nihilism of current offerings any day. Both may (deliberately or inadvertently) promote a misplaced popular belief in the all-powerful nature of the state, but it is a shorter leap from romanticism-through-government to romanticism-through-individualism than it is from nihilism and amorality to any outlook which has a hope of promoting human life and flourishing and of restoring us to a more enlightened understanding of the proper role of the state in society.

[i] “Galt’s Speech,” For the New Intellectual, pg. 128.

[ii] “Faith and Force: The Destroyers of the Modern World,” Philosophy: Who Needs It, pg. 67.

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