Saturday, December 4, 2010

Being In Touch

With the scuffling over don’t-ask-don’t-tell repeal swerving from outrageous absurdity to superlative outrage, it has been suggested quite a few times that John McCain—the ringleader in all of this—is “out of touch.” (Here’s the Google search, and here are a few articles/posts/essays that essentially accuse him of this without resorting to this exact cliché.) Anyway, surely we can agree that it’s more than just silly that such intransigence exists on this issue, but I was thinking about the broader issue: why exactly the cliché that McCain is out of touch? Surely the problem is that McCain is wrong, not that he ignores the views of the citizenry.

Typically the out-of-touch storyline also attaches it to claims like this:

Or, you know, John McCain doesn’t know how many houses he has hah hah hah (this was actually very funny.). So the out-of-touch insult has two separate, yet related ideas here: one political (politicians just don’t know what we think) and one cultural (they just don’t know what we’re going through, those elitists). The cultural critique is something that’s pretty much inevitable: if you give someone power, it ends up changing that someone into part of an elite that is, by virtue of status, inevitably out-of-touch with what regular people happen to be going through. This has not stopped people like FDR or LBJ, both of whom owned several homes (though there’s little evidence they were unsure how many they owned), from doing some great things while in office. It’s a danger, but it’s a danger that has existed and will exist indefinitely.

But I’m not sure that many politicians are truly out-of-touch for long anyway. We frequently accuse politicians of being too wishy-washy, or of paying too much attention to the polls, which are essentially accusations that politicians are too interested in popular opinion, i.e. are too interested with being in touch. McCain is once again instructive on this point: McCain’s maverick rhetoric was mostly mocked not because we considered being an independent thinker willing to do whatever he thought was right was wrong, but because we considered his rhetoric and his actions to be wildly divergent. On some level, we wanted McCain to be out-of-touch—and we’ve gotten it.

Then there’s the question of whether he is actually out-of-touch. Whatever his out-of-touchness, he has not actually been punished for it by the voters: he just got returned to the Senate. You might say that he is out of touch nationally, but it’s not John McCain’s job to represent the nation; it’s John McCain’s job to represent Arizona, and whatever Arizona’s views on don’t ask, don’t tell, it doesn’t consider McCain’s views a fireable offense. It seems, then, that McCain is actually “in touch.” Which is what we should expect as a baseline: most elected politicians, by virtue of being elected, must be at least somewhat consonant with people’s views and must therefore be in touch. The more often they are elected, the more likely they are to be close to their electorate’s views and therefore the more likely they are to be in touch. Indeed, with the advent and reliance on modern polling, it seems likely that politicians believe themselves to be more in touch than ever before.

A too-strong insistence with being in touch is probably detrimental anyway. The public’s views at any given time are malleable: most of the time the public has no special expertise and isn’t paying much attention, and even if they did fulfill both of these things, their views now are not their views later, which is the point of having multi-year terms anyway. What this means is that politicians should feel themselves responsible not for the temporary present but the future, because that’s when they will be judged. In McCain’s case, as just about everyone has pointed out, it seems incredibly unlikely that anyone will think McCain was right in 2014, let alone 2020 or 2030. And it seems unlikely because McCain is wrong. That’s the proper thing to criticize McCain for, not how is touch is doing.

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