Tuesday, June 21, 2016

The paradox of Ben Sasse

Source: Slate.com

Nebraska Senator Ben Sasse gave a pretty awesome speech a few weeks ago.

He also tweeted this:

A Republican, Mr. Sasse has a fairly generic party-line voting record. The unfortunate reality of our hyper-rational politics is that partisanship trumps all. The exceptions are increasingly in the realms of social media and presidential politics, where some ambitious politicians break out and differentiate. Sasse is a notably high-profile vector for the #NeverTrump meme, and his Twitter and media identities are remarkably intellectual and genuine-seeming.

But is it real?  Sasse's media identity powerfully signals an affiliation with elite liberal sensibilities, despite being a Republican in a red state. He can memorize a speech. He analyzes political philosophy and the socioeconomic effects of advanced technology. He talks a lot about his family and sports in a strangely anodyne-yet-edgy way. For technocratic and business elites, he's almost too good to be true. So is he an example of a Republican politician who cuts against the party's current issue-set stagnation, perhaps signalling a return to sanity within the party? Or is he just a really effective media shill with a unique strategy? The depressing reality is that I'm not sure.

To Win, Ben Sasse Must Lose

The ironic fact is that the only way I could conceivably see myself voting for him (whether as a Nebraska resident or on a national ticket) is if he'd previously lost gratuitously. His academic-intellectual dog whistles and #NeverTrump support might be sincere, but because he's not up for reelection this year, they are in some sense cheap talk. To credibly demonstrate his integrity, he would need to deploy costly signals during a close re-election fight, which he hasn't done.

Obviously this is a perverse situation, because losing reelection would imperil any future higher-office opportunities. It would also affirm the status-quo incentive structure for future good candidates, whereby the nail that sticks up gets pounded down (i.e. voted out of office).

If he wins reelection in Nebraska by a decent margin, continues to stand out as a uniquely conscious and informed senator, and ends up on a national Republican ticket in 2020 or 2024, I will have little confidence that his intellectualism is anything more than a media strategy which happened to work out.

Integrity is a lie

When asked, people say they want their political leaders to have 'integrity'. But they don't, really. What they want is politicians who will advance their desired policies or affiliations, or at least signal their intention to do so. Truly demonstrating integrity almost by definition requires politicians to break with popular positions on issues. The politicians with 'integrity' who become superstars (Obama, etc.) are merely those whose chosen issues happen to fit well with the salient issues of slightly-in-the-future voters. Most politicians with 'integrity' simply aren't around anymore.

Another model, of course, is to flex and adapt. All politicians do this to a degree, and skilled political operators can successfully maintain a public persona of integrity while shifting policy positions in order to maintain electability. This model allows individuals to stick around in elected office, perhaps with the hope that future shifts in the electoral landscape will enable another shot at more power (Sanders, Clinton, etc.). Strangely, it's this sort of politician that we can discern the most about in terms of functional skills--intelligence, management, judgement, etc. because the policy stuff is in some loose sense 'controlled for'.

In our Ben Sasse example, though, it's not clear just yet which approach he embodies. He appears to be 'going long' on a number of risky positions, from #NeverTrump to technological utopianism to cultural intellectualism, but hasn't yet been tested with tough votes or tough elections in Republican and general contests. I guess we'll find out.

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