As I mentioned in a recent sermon, I like politicians. My great-grandfather was a state legislator in Wisconsin from 1930 until his early death in 1936. My grandfather won the same seat in 1958 and held it for twenty years until shortly before his death. My uncle served two terms representing the same seat in the 1990s, and my father was the mayor of our small town for a while. I grew up being introduced to people who served in the legislature with my grandfather or my uncle, going to the dining rooms of strangers to stuff campaign mailers or pick up literature for a knock-and-drop, or meeting aspiring candidates.
Once I was old enough to really interact with these people I got to see and appreciate how they worked. Russ Feingold, apparently not very popular among his colleagues, was indefatigably warm and gracious to constituents. He always remembered me and my family on the few occasions when I met him. I was extremely excited to meet Bernie Sanders back in 1993 or 94, when my politics were quite unfashionably left-wing and he was the most exciting member of the House. He was quite serious and intense, no glad-handing, but had a big, infectious grin. I didn’t talk to him, but I almost ran over John Edwards in the lobby of the Drake Hotel when I was covering a primary debate in 2003. “Niiice to seeee yeouuu,” he was obnoxiously drawling to someone he’d probably never met. I wish I had knocked him down, in retrospect. A couple years later I saw Barack Obama, then a fast-rising star of the senate and my neighbor, in Rajun Cajun. “Hey senator,” my friend and I said. “Hey guys,” he nodded back. “Clinton would have stopped and talked to us,” I observed to my friend.
I never met Tommy Thompson, Wisconsin’s long-time governor, and he was not popular in our home for many reasons (including the fact that he killed a proposal to rename a state building after my grandfather). But Tommy once told a cousin of mine that the key to campaigning in small-town taverns was to come in the morning and buy a round for the house. There wouldn’t be many people there, but the ones who are would be there all day, and they’d tell everyone who came in about you. That’s good politics. You get to know people, how to read them, how to work with whatever they give you.
Several years ago I interviewed two Minnesota politicians for a story about Michele Bachmann. She was nearing the peak of her brief ascent to the top of the Republican presidential primary field at the time, and was correspondingly a figure of terror and disgust among many liberals. I didn’t think highly of her myself, but I wanted to tell a story about her appeal. The people I interviewed (one of whom had lost a bitter race against her) were frank about her strengths and the source of her popularity. There’s no upside to ignorance or denial when you run for office.
In my experience politicians aren’t necessarily smarter than most people. Not a few of them are dumb as sacks of hair. But it profits them to know things that a lot of us don’t want or need to. One of my favorite human-interest stories started out as a visit to a local mosque for an Eid celebration. One look at the draft and my editor said “this is about the politicians who showed up.” And indeed it was. These suburban Republicans couldn’t stand up on that stage and rant about “Isalmofascism” or whatever; they were in front of voters and had to treat them that way. Yes, this can involve some not-very-persuasive glad-handing, some milquetoast commitments that won’t be met without plenty of glances over the shoulder, some ham-fisted rhetorical appeals to a sliver of common ground that no one of taste or discretion would respect. But it’s not their fault that any system gives the customer only what we insist upon, and not more.
The loss of this mode of politicking is the less-seen shadow side of the dysfunction and looming institutional crisis created by extreme gerrymandering. Once you know with a mathematical certainly who you don’t need, and where you don’t ever have to go, you are just wasting your time trying to hear out and nod along with some random collection of constituents. You have to tend to your party’s nominating voters and your funders, and they don’t care whether you’re able to empathize with whatever marginal voter you’re chasing at the mosque or the deli or the tavern.
I don’t mean to romanticize this or whitewash its ugly, gloomy side. It’s not a lovely craft, but like any craft it addresses itself to true and real things. And like any craft, its obsolescence creates a loss we don’t know how to name.