The most pervasive hatred in American politics – of which I am trying to wean myself – is also the least chastised. It is the obsessive hostility to professional politicians and the transactions of everyday politics. Jonathan Rauch dubbed it “politiphobia.” In his essay “How American Politics Went Insane,” which is a sort of addendum to his recent book Political Realism, Rauch said:
Using polls and focus groups, [political scientists John R.] Hibbing and [Elizabeth] Theiss-Morse found that between 25 and 40 percent of Americans (depending on how one measures) have a severely distorted view of how government and politics are supposed to work. I think of these people as “politiphobes,” because they see the contentious give-and-take of politics as unnecessary and distasteful. Specifically, they believe that obvious, commonsense solutions to the country’s problems are out there for the plucking. The reason these obvious solutions are not enacted is that politicians are corrupt, or self-interested, or addicted to unnecessary partisan feuding. Not surprisingly, politiphobes think the obvious, commonsense solutions are the sorts of solutions that they themselves prefer. But the more important point is that they do not acknowledge that meaningful policy disagreement even _exists_. From that premise, they conclude that all the arguing and partisanship and horse-trading that go on in American politics are entirely unnecessary. Politicians could easily solve all our problems if they would only set aside their craven personal agendas.
If politicians won’t do the job, then who will? Politiphobes, according to Hibbing and Theiss-Morse, believe policy should be made not by messy political conflict and negotiations but by _ENSIDS_: empathetic, non-self-interested decision makers. These are leaders who will step forward, cast aside cowardly politicians and venal special interests, and implement long-overdue solutions. _ENSIDS_ can be politicians, technocrats, or autocrats – whatever works. Whether the process is democratic is not particularly important.
Chances are that politiphobes have been out there since long before Hibbing and Theiss-Morse identified them in 2002. Unlike the Tea Party or the Working Families Party, they aren’t particularly ideological: They have popped up left, right, and center. Ross Perot’s independent presidential candidacies of 1992 and 1996 appealed to the idea that any sensible businessman could knock heads together and fix Washington. In 2008, Barack Obama pandered to a center-left version of the same fantasy, promising to magically transcend partisan politics and implement the best solutions from both parties.
From this point of view, there are “obvious, commonsense solutions,” which “special” interests have undermined. Most political conflict does not come from the clash of rivalrous goods or honest discord between legitimate interests. It comes from selfish indulgence – when it’s not the result of some conspiracy. A wholesome unity lies just beyond our reach, if only we had the right leadership.
The promise is as alluring as it is false. This unease and unhappiness with conventional politics is, I expect, genuine, but it cannot be eradicated. It is an example of what Karl Popper called “the strain of civilization,” which must be borne by those who live in – and reap all the advantages of – an open society.