Running on Empty

A recent post by Walter Russell Mead (  “Another One Bites The Dust” uses Herman Cain’s recent campaign suspension to bemoan the dearth of capable and viable candidates for the Republican nomination for President.  Why can’t we find anyone up to the task?  Mead’s short answer is that “our economy and our society have outrun our political ideas.”  He further posits that “The reason no such candidate has appeared is that our national discussion about life after blue remains thin.”

After discussing the increasing complexity of the job, he concludes that “it is less than surprising that so many presidential wannabees seem smaller than the job.” Add to this talk about the lack of good candidates and the great number of issues, the intense scrutiny that anyone faces as he or she comes more brightly into the public light and you begin to see the logic lining up on the other side.

This brings me to my point.  I don’t want to vote for anyone who wants the job.  Party affiliation and political platform aside, I see no one who wants the job for the right reason.  The incumbent wants to continue his agenda for four more years.  The Republicans seem to want to undo what the last three years have done.  Or they want to promote single issues, such as taxes, pipelines, abortion or prayer in school.  Or they want to shrink the government, which means shrink the parts they don’t like and continue those they do.

I still recall my Philosophy 101 class, which I took more years ago than I care to admit to.  Plato’s Theory of the Philosopher-King in The Republic has stuck with me all these years. While there is much in Plato I disagree with, I have kept this part on call in my mind and today’s politics has me searching futilely for a worthy candidate.

The ultra-short version of this theory is that we should want the very best and brightest to be our leaders.  They, however, would be smart enough to know that they don’t want the job.  They would rather let someone else have to worry about everyone else and take care of all their concerns.  That would leave them free to worry only about themselves. Selfish to be sure, but logical.

Plato goes further to describe the sort of man he considers to be true philosophers:

“They have “knowledge” in that “their hearts are set on Reality itself.  They alone realize that the ordinary things of life are nothing but fleeting and changeable images of what is truly real…Since the Philosopher loves truth, he will always be honest and forthright; since all his energies will be directed toward the most real and high-minded of all things, he will give little time to his bodily desires, and so he will be disciplined.”

Plato believes that the philosophers will make the best rulers, but he doubts whether the necessary qualities can be found in one person:

“There will certainly not be many philosopher-rulers in the state, for all the qualities a ruler must have will rarely be found combined in a single individual.  A ruler must, on the one hand, be ready and quick to learn, and highly intelligent and enterprising; and on the other hand, he must be disciplined and reliable, and willing to lead a sober life.”

Walter Mead also looks for someone who combines two qualities: “a coherent and innovative approach to the big questions of the day combined with a steady pair of experienced hands.”

I see precious little of Plato’s or Mead’s requirements in the current cast of candidates.
Too many see public office as a means to enrich themselves.  Just look at the number of congressmen and senators who leave office wealthier than they were when they entered, and then go on to lucrative jobs in the private sector, trading on the influence and relationships they acquired while serving, while collecting a government pension. In any given Congress, many of the 535 members are made up of holier-than-thou hypocrites who level charges at their colleagues as they hope they don’t get caught with their own “pair of experienced hands” in some cookie jar, or just in some cookie.  And one who will lead a sober life?  Fuggedaboutit.

Academia offers little hope as well.  Life in the ivory tower can leave one ill-prepared for the real world, as we have seen in the current administration.  And there is certainly
no shortage of scandal there.  Then there’s that sober thing, too.

Plato goes on to say that “in a bad society a good man will be useless, and a useful one will be corrupt.  A man cannot be wholly good, therefore, unless his environment is also a good one.” We can hardly look at our political environment and find much good in it.   In the end, then, do we just get the government we deserve?

Walter Mead states that “the United States is actually far better situated than other leading societies to find its way forward.”  Sorry, Walter, but that simply makes us the tallest midget in the circus. We must be able to do better than that.

Mead then concludes: “But for now, an old way of living doesn’t work any longer, and we don’t yet know what the new system will look like.  It is not surprising under the circumstances that our politics are polarized and our leaders seem so small.”  I find this sad.  The fact that we do know what the future holds does not relieve us of the obligation to help shape it. As to the polarization of the political field, well, it was Newt Gingrich who accelerated that in the 1990’s, and some would say that it is the bedrock of the Democratic Party today.

So as we do every four years, we will look at the candidates for the presidential election
next year, Obama vs. Romney or whichever not-Romney makes it, and say, “Is this
the best we can do?”

Perhaps there are qualified candidates out there.  If not on the current political roster or academia, should we cast a wider net?  What about the oft invoked mantra of the innovativeness of the American entrepreneur.  We may send the grunt work overseas, but the creative jobs and the future applications of new ideas will stay here and provide the basis for our economic resurgence.  Mead seems to come closer to this path. A successful entrepreneur must have an innovative spirit, the ability to bring a coherent
business plan together and a steady hand in order to handle the risk of the situation.  Is there anyone out there with a lamp of truth that won’t pale under the glaring light of scrutiny?  I don’t know, but it seems that it would be a game worth the candle.

Otherwise, we can look forward to muddling through another unsatisfying campaign season watching mediocre politicians avoid giving real answers to the important questions for which we need answers. As we approach Christmas, maybe Santa can leave a true philosopher-ruler under the tree.  If he can find one.

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