This piece was first published in The Hill on March 29, 2021
Americans like to say they hate politics, but Joe Biden and the new administration would do well to make a more realistic assessment. For many men in particular, politics seems to be a stand-in for the wars and blood sports that historically filled their time between planting and harvest. Former Sen. Jim Webb from Virginia, a decorated Marine, said of his own Scotch-Irish American bloodline in his book, “Born Fighting,” that when his people weren’t battling a shared enemy, they were fighting each other.
Webb’s analysis is clearly too limited. Fighting is a big part of most cultures, and people seem to enjoy it — until it strikes near home. Literature and history are full of fights within families, tribes, nations, religions, and political factions. The advantage of politics is that it gets the fighting out of the house and family, where it is especially dangerous. The American Constitution is a framework designed by the Founders to manage inevitable conflict by balancing interests to check each other. As James Madison wrote in Federalist 51, “This policy of supplying, by opposite and rival interests, the defect [i.e., lack] of better motives, might be traced through the whole system of human affairs, private as well as public.” No one could put it better.
Many women also say they hate politics, but the contention is not convincing. In the real world, many seem to enjoy it, not least for the opportunities it provides for gaining power, arousing men, and identifying the strong ones. I am reminded of an iconic photo from 1914 of joyous women in Berlin rushing to put flowers in the muzzles of the rifles of a column of smiling German soldiers headed off toward Paris. Four years later after 2 million dead and years of near starvation, the mood was no doubt different.
War leaders, especially aggressive ones, are popular with Americans and indeed with other people. They flock to leaders who enjoy political combat. Donald Trump’s supporters enjoyed his stance as a fighter and the pain he inflicted. They mocked his victims as if they were beaten opponents in a football game, quitters who let the team down, or a boxer who threw in the towel. Trump fans hooted for his attacks on experts and the media, as well as more vulnerable people like immigrants, the handicapped, even children in squalid camps. Thumbs up is Trump’s favorite signal. Thumbs down was the Roman referee’s signal to kill the loser, often the crowd’s preference. Grisly executions in Europe and unspeakably cruel lynchings in the U.S. attracted large crowds. There is pleasure and excitement in mistreating other people.
Political rallies are entertainment. Thousands came out in 1858 to hear the seven Lincoln-Douglas debates. They came out decades later to be entertained at the hundreds of fire-and-brimstone speeches William Jennings Bryan gave every year. President Theodore (Teddy) Roosevelt, the manly “rough rider,” enjoyed blistering the fat-cat Republican Establishment of his day. Those attacks were so popular that he forced the reluctant Republicans to re-nominate him in 1904. He made politics fun by happily skewering the super-wealthy J.P. Morgan and using the government and the courts to unwind Morgan’s sweeping efforts to cartelize the American economy.
Franklin Roosevelt, FDR, was elected four times. He was a jaunty President often pictured smiling with one of his many cigarette holders pointing skyward in his teeth. He was appreciated too for knowing how to use a stiletto. He laughingly named his Republican opponent in 1940, Wendell Willkie, the “barefoot boy from Wall Street.” Willkie, a very liberal Republican by today’s standards, was a well-heeled lawyer for the Commonwealth and Southern power company. He opposed the Tennessee Valley Authority to preserve his client’s lock on the seven poor Appalachian Southern states that the TVA eventually brought into the modern economy. FDR knew that Willkie’s claim of a log cabin youth gave him an opening, so he gleefully attacked it.
FDR enjoyed political combat and the millions of Americans who supported him loved him for it. His “fireside chats” drew large audiences, the Twitter of his age. He made voters laugh by teasing the Republicans for not just attacking him and his wife Eleanor, but also for attacking his “little dog Falla.” Thousands turned out at a New York City train station to see FDR’s Justice Department ostentatiously take a well born stock market embezzler to “Sing Sing” prison in handcuffs. FDR knew how to play the game.
Americans fain horror at the sex in politics but they love it as much as the gladiatorial combat. I looked eagerly a few months ago for more titillating stories about evangelist Jerry Falwell, Jr., his wife and her much younger Brazilian “friend.” The sexy practices of which the Falwells were accused made me rush to the Internet to find a copy of the Kinsey Report from 1948 (“The Sexual Practices in the Human Males”), but used copies are expensive.
The Falwell story died too quickly for my prurient taste I must confess. It was however far from the first about a pious religious leader involved in sexual misbehavior in fancy surroundings with a glass in his hand. Like combat in politics, sex in politics is exciting. It allows the public to condemn behavior that fails to meet biblical standards while envying the sexual license that political as well as religious power has conveyed to leaders since the beginning of time.
President Biden and his administration need to see through the claim that Americans dislike politics and play it as the contact sport that it is. Indeed, they should enjoy it. Americans who say they hate the fighting, division, and sex should be taken with a grain of salt. Politics is a sanctioned outlet for men and women who might otherwise be warring within their own families, or worse. The authors of the Ten Commandments knew the humanity they were addressing, and Biden’s people should be similarly aware and wise.