Michael Kinsley, writing in Bloomberg Businessweek, argues that the only reason to run for public office that he can fathom is the hunger for popularity. He dispatches with one possibility early on:
Is it ideals that propel people into politics, some vision of America they wish to realize? This is what they all would claim, but it’s not true. They may have inclinations or instincts that come close to core beliefs—smaller government or universal health care—but an actual philosophy of any detail can be a disadvantage in politics, as it will inevitably lead someplace you’d rather not go. Ron Paul, the libertarian who’s running for President as a Republican, will get into trouble again and again if he insists on stating his true beliefs, which he almost always does. Most pols fall somewhere on the spectrum between Paul and Mitt Romney, whose views on every subject are completely at the service of his ambition.
Though I’m certain that attention-seeking is a significant factor for most if not all those who seek public office, I found this paragraph strangely unconvincing. How do we account for Paul, who, as Kinsley acknowledges, really does state his true beliefs, and who labored in thankless obscurity for many decades to advance his idiosyncratic paleolibertarian views? Part of it is undoubtedly that people seek attention and approval not just from the larger mass of people, but from specific constituencies, e.g., Barack Obama might recognize that he is despised by tens of millions of Americans, many of them conservatives. Yet he might also recognize that a large number of highly educated professionals, who share his tastes, preferences, and sensibilities, continue to think highly of him, or that many of hard-pressed African Americans believe that he is fighting the good fight against Republican zealots. Indeed, mild disaffection in either left-leaning constituency might impact him more than zealous hatred from the right. The intensity of the affection for Paul, and for various Tea Party favorites, might count for more than the fact that some larger number of moderates are turned off by the politics of conviction.
Some combination of ideas and vision and the desire to champion, to reflect, and to vindicate the worldview of some larger, but not all-encompassing, group plays a role in the desire to engage politically. I should not that the non-all-encompassing nature is crucial: some level of antagonism is essential to spark interest. This antagonism needn’t take place in the domestic political context, e.g., one could seek achieve distinction in the Chinese Communist Party, motivated by the belief that the developmental agenda of the CCP is the best way for China to find its “place in the sun” in a world divided between hostile nation-states. In Singapore, where the People’s Action Party won over 60 percent of the vote in the last parliamentary election, the rhetoric of survival, so vivid during the tumultuous early days of the republic, continues to have at least some resonance.
In a first-past-the-post and presidential system like our own, in which there are powerful institutional biases towards two-party politics, defining antagonisms take many forms. Very loosely speaking, it is often said that Massachusetts politics have been defined by a rivalry between Irish Catholics on one side and WASPs and Jews on the other. This is presumably less true now, as class boundaries have blurred and intermarriage has grown more common and as migrants from other regions, like recent governors Deval Patrick and Mitt Romney, have shaped the landscape. One might speak of a similar ethnic antagonism between southern white Anglos and African Americans. Both are ethnic communities that share a great deal in terms of dialect and folkways, yet both communities have tended to find themselves on opposite sides of the political divide. The conventional explanation for this is white racism. One wonders if there is a more complicated story, centered on clashing ethnocultural narratives, different income sources, and much else. That is, does a racial divide that doesn’t exist in the case of the classic Irish Catholic-WASP rivalry, or rather a racial divide that no longer exists as we conventionally understand the term, obscure the actual sources of the black-white political divide in the U.S. South?
All of this is to say that while “communal politics” might in some sense be about popularity (“I want to champion my coethnics in national political life”), it is also about ideas and vision.
A final note on Kinsley’s column: the great barrier for sane people, I’ve always thought, is the prospect of disclosing intimate details, ranging from the state of one’s marriage to sources of income. So yes, at least some craziness is required, hence the lingering disappointment of many conservatives at Mitch Daniels’ decision not to run for president: he wasn’t crazy enough. (But perhaps that will change?)