How did politics become so boring?

Last week I returned home from a stint of teaching corporate social responsibility in Bangkok, Thailand. I was keen to pick up the dynamic of our political campaigns. But little engaged my attention.

The ads and debates were trite. The partisan put-downs of candidates were, well, partisan and stale. They were largely off-point personal attacks too obviously designed to play to one base vote or the other by raising inferential fears and suspicions about the character of a candidate.

There is a lot of status-quo-ism and not much intellectual or policy stimulation in our statewide campaigns to date.

This has left me with the question: Why the boredom?

Then I read Michael Grunwald's essay in the Oct. 6 Time magazine. He writes about "the politics of nothing," adding that "both conservatives and liberals have accomplished much of what they set out to do a generation or more ago. So what now?"

Good question indeed.

Grunwald's insight focused me on what is telling about Hillary Clinton's efforts to position herself as a national leader. There is not a lot of there, as was once said about Oakland, California.

Hillary seems to be running for no reason other than that she wants to. She wants to be the Big Kahuna; she wants the limelight; she wants the attention, the advantages, that come from having an important position.

So why should we give her what she wants?

The answer, it seems from her perspective, is mostly that she is a woman and she wants the presidency and it is her turn and it is time for a woman. Very baby boomerish of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Very Fleetwood Mac, which just had a reunion performance here in Minnesota. Aging boomers in a nostalgic mode of entertainment.

Not a lot of there if you ask me to be candid about it.

As we all know deep down, wanting all by itself provides no sufficient ethical justification for getting.

More is required of us. And the bigger the prize, the more we should work to deserve its coming our way.

Come to think of it, President Barack Obama seems to have run out of steam in his second term as well. No big ideas, no initiatives, no reaching for the stars of destiny. Just hunkering down and waiting out the days and months until Jan. 20, 2017. Very boring.

The Affordable Care Act for health care may prove to be the high water mark of the modern Democratic Party's political agenda for the country. For them it is now all downhill or just on the defensive. Preserve the status quo achieved in fulfilling the baby boomer demands of the 1970s for a society more protective of those vulnerable and risk-averse, more open to sexual permissiveness across the board, not beholden to old WASP ideals of character and responsibility, and not burdened with a foreign policy that wants to carry water for other peoples.

After all, if the Democrats triumphantly insisted on abandoning the South Vietnamese, the Cambodians, and the Hmong and other peoples of Laos, why should they not just let things be in Afghanistan, Iraq, Ukraine, Syria, the South China Sea, and elsewhere?

Government has been ramped up to use bureaucracy to force-feed the nation with these progressive cultural priorities. Courts and judges are now not seen as instruments of the law but of politics, using legal authority to impose their cultural predilections on a case-by-case basis.

But the Democrats under Clinton and Obama have been kind to Wall Street, where they raise a lot of money. They ramped up the speculation machine which gave us the bubble and the massive failure with subprime mortgages and which still cannot finance a sound recovery for the 90 percent of Americans.

Participation in the labor force is only 62.7 percent of those able to work, the lowest level since 1973.

Not that the Republicans have been much better in their own right. They have succeeded in bringing the country to stalemate, which has capped the ability of Democrats to impose more of their priorities on our culture.

But just standing there in bitter opposition after a while also gets boring.

Where is the vision, where is the excitement, which will bring more prosperity and happiness to the people and make the world better and safer for all of us?

Then, as if to sink me more into frustrated despair, I read Peggy Noonan's essay on bureaucracy in last Saturday's Wall Street Journal. She gave Grunwald's "politics of nothing" and its corresponding geist of boredom a new home: our bureaucracies.

She squirmed intellectually at the "boredom and indifference with which government testifiers skirt, dodge and withhold the truth" when appearing before congressional committees. "Everything sounds like propaganda," she complained, with reason. She added that "they really don't care what you think of them. They are running the show and if you don't like it, too bad."

Noonan described the testimony of the now former director of the Secret Service, Julia Pierson, as the "lifeless expression of consultant-guided anti-truth."

Noonan illuminated our current politics of nothing by saying: "The public figure literally says, 'Prepare my talking points, and the public says, 'He's just reading talking points.' It leaves everyone feeling compromised. Public officials gripe they can't break through the cynicism. They cause the cynicism."

This is an infestation of systemic selfishness, the coming into force of low entropy where mediocrity and boredom thrive.

It's no wonder people are tuning out of politics and sinking into apathy. They want, and in a constitutional democracy deserve, more than what we are getting from our so-called leaders and would-be leaders.

By the way, the same culture of bureaucracy was behind GM's decade-long failure to respond to faulty ignition switches in some of its cars. There we learned about the "GM nod" and the "GM salute" where employees signaled to each other their avoidance of personal responsibility.

Sic transit gloria res publica.


Stephen B. Young is executive director of the Caux Round Table, an international network advocating ethical principles for business and government.

Published: Fri, Nov 07, 2014