After many election cycles as a political junky of sorts, I find my attention drifting farther and farther away from national politics. Why? Partly because my faith is Jesus Christ has opened the door to many more important things to be interested in. Partly because in the current situation there seems to be little hope that either major party will accomplish anything worthwhile. And partly because it’s just lost its entertainment value. When I was younger, the political process was interrupted by moment of surreality, as our elected leaders did things so bizarre and ridiculous that people struggled to find any decent way of responding. But now the surrealism is flowing non-stop. There’s no longer any grounded realism for the surrealism to be contrasted to.
Let me focus for a second on presidential politics. For most of American history, folks ran for President if and only if they wanted to be President. There simply wasn’t any other reason to toss your hat into the ring. Over the past generation we’ve seen the rise of “second-tier candidates”. These guys (and they’re always guys) list themselves as contenders for the nomination of the major parties while knowing perfectly well that they have no chance of winning. They do it to get attention for their pet causes. This makes sense, given the enormous amount of media attention that gets directed at the presidential race. By joining the race, one gets to appear at debates and get mentioned in some of the coverage. It’s a relatively low-cost way to get publicity. That’s what fuels the campaigns of ‘single-digit midgets’ like Pat Buchanan, Tom Tancredo, Ron Paul, Dennis Kucinich, and Mike Gravel.
The last decade has seen the rise of a third type of candidate: the joke candidate. The joke candidate has no interest in becoming President or in advancing a political agenda. Instead, he or she runs only to boost his or her own ego, and thus engages in outlandish behavior just for the heck of it. The watershed moment for joke candidates was the 2003 recall election for the governorship of California. Many joke candidates ran: Arrianna Huffington, Gary Coleman, and Larry Flynt, just to name three. One joke candidate won: Arnold Schwarzenegger. There can be little doubt that having this incompetent buffoon in office for seven years contributed to the financial disaster that hit California during his second term. But there can be less doubt that the whole experience boosted his ego, and that he enjoyed behaving like a small, spoiled child while running the biggest state government in the country.
Joke candidates didn’t really hit the presidential race en masse until the currect campaign cycle. Thus far, four different joke candidates–Sarah Palin, Donald Trump, Michelle Bachmann, and Herman Cain, having reached first or second in the polls in the race of the Republican nomination. More startling still is the fact that the last man on that list is still first in the polls, with the primaries starting in two and a half months. Now my personal prediction is that Mitt Romeny will eke out a victory in the primaries. However, anyone looking at the current situation would have to acknowledge an outside possibility that Cain will win, or that some other joker will manage to come out on top. And if I were an intelligent Republican, that possibility would not make me happy.