Posted Friday morning, November 4, 2016.
What was it Winston Churchill is supposed to have said?
“The strongest argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with an average voter”?
Monday, I’m lying on the table at physical therapy with a heating pad under my back, eyes closed, nearly dozing off, and I overhear two other clients, a man and a woman, talking about the election. They were cheerfully grumpy about it. The man asked that most dangerous question:
“Who are you voting for?”
She replied matter of factly, “I don’t vote.”
She didn’t add “it only encourages them.”
She did say, “They’re all terrible.” By all she meant all. Not just Clinton and Trump. Everyone running in every election, national, state, and local. Politicians of all stripes, all parties, she’s got no use for any of them. She offered no specific objection to politicians as a class nor did she express any particular complaints about specific politicians she hasn’t voted for in the past or won’t be voting for this time (except for Clinton and Trump. I’ll get to that). She didn’t say she thought they were all corrupt or liars or just plain stupid. Her feeling seemed to be that in general they’re all useless.
No politician, as far as she seemed to be concerned, has ever done anybody a lick of good. Politics, again as far as she seemed to be concerned, had pretty much no impact on her life and asking her to care about it enough to use up part of her day to go vote annoyed her, as if she was being told she had to take her car in for a maintenance checkup even though she’d had it in fairly recently and it was running fine and all that was likely to happen if she brought it in would be that the mechanics would find something wrong with it that had to be fixed right then and there or else the warranty agreement would be voided.
Politics and the doings of politicians were at best annoying distractions and, finally, none of her business. Taking time off from work to go vote for any candidate up for any office would be like doing it to go vote for the officers of club she didn’t belong to or the board members of a company she didn’t work for or have stock in. The outcomes wouldn’t affect her and so wouldn’t matter to her one way or another.
If you don’t like politics, turn off your television. And your radio. And your internet. And your lights and water, and your sewer…
I know from having grown up watching Pop Mannion try to explain it to irate taxpayers back when he was town supervisor that the roads don’t plow themselves in the winter and the trucks don’t run on air and the drivers have to be paid and the gas has to be bought that most people don’t understand---or want to understand---that “politics” is just another word for our collective decision-making about how we’re going to live together politely and peacefully without recourse to battle axes and poison and the odd dragon. Few town residents wanted to hear it from Pop and this woman certainly didn’t want to hear it from me
I might have done it, anyway, if I hadn’t been so warm and comfortable on top of the heating pad and if she had actually said the things I wrote about her feelings about politics out loud and I wasn’t just making inferences and thinking I could read her mind.
But I didn’t have to read her mind to know her opinions of Clinton and Trump. She said what they were out loud and emphatically. She doesn’t like either of them, naturally, but her dislike for them goes beyond her usual contempt for politicians as a class. But if she was going to vote, she’d probably vote for Trump. Not with any enthusiasm or satisfaction, of course. She thinks he’s despicable. She can’t put up with all his lying. But Hillary just doesn’t care about people. Look at how she wouldn’t let us bring our troops home.
Which troops from where she and when this happened and how Hillary herself managed this on her own she didn’t say. She’s far from the only person who thinks that the Secretary of State is commander-in-chief of the armed forces or commands her own military units and that she decides foreign and military policy, the president and the joint chiefs taking orders from her. And it doesn’t mark her as a closet Republican or conservative or even a FoxNews watcher that she thinks so. An awful lot of Bernie People seemed to think so during the Democratic primaries. They also appeared to think she was President of the United States for fourteen years, starting in 1993, and that Bill worked for her and W. was only on hand for a few months after 9/11 to cheerlead her taking us into war in Iraq. There was some question as to whether they believed Barack Obama was president before 2015. Never mind. The point is this woman knows Trump is lying scum but Clinton’s heartless and cruel and that’s worse.
Besides, Trump is a businessman.
She figures that means he knows how to run things.
Ok. Before you get to feeling Churchillian about democracy as I did initially, this average non-voter wasn’t a fool. The rest of her conversation with her friend in the waiting area and then with the therapist when she started her session proved she wasn’t.
And the idea that a businessman being qualified to be president just on the grounds that he is a businessman and therefore knows how to run things isn’t...well, all right. It is foolish. But not as foolish as all that.
Let’s pretend that the businessman or woman we’re talking about here isn’t a lying, thieving, cheating, tax-dodging incompetent and fraud and does in fact know how to run things, things being his or her business. In what way does knowing how to run their own particular business make them competent to run the country, or a state or a city, or a town? For that matter, how does knowing how to run their own particular business make them competent to run some other sort of business (he asks innocently, calling into question the whole premise of MBA programs)?
Of course, lots of businesspeople run for public office. Really rich ones are particularly fond of running for governor. They seem to regard governor as an entry level position. But plenty run for other offices too. They run and they win. And as soon as that happens they stop being businesspeople and become politicians and then they have to prove on the job that they’re good at the business of politics. Some turn out to be. But on the whole their record is as mixed as those of politicians who got into politics from any other line of work. So why do people persist in believing that businesspeople are just what the country/state/city/town needs to get things running right? Why are they convinced that having run a business qualifies someone to run a political entity?
Because, to an extent, it does.
Insert banalities about meeting budgets, being able to judge whom to hire and fire, being able to negotiate a good deal, having to get along with all sorts and conditions of men and women, etc.
But those are skills you can pick up in other ways and not all businesspeople have them or cultivate them anyway.
I’m biased on this one because Pop Mannion was good at all those things and he was a physicist and a college professor whose one brief foray into being a businessman did not, let us say, make the family rich. He had been, however, the manager of the computer science department at General Electric’s Knolls Atomic Power Lab and GE’s a business and if you work for a business that sort of makes you a businessman, doesn’t it? He never thought of himself as one, though. He saw himself as a manager and a problem solver and those skills helped make him a successful town supervisor.
And when he was running the town, some of the biggest fools he had to deal with were local businessmen who’d gotten themselves elected to the town board or appointed to the zoning commission or who’d just show up at board meetings to sound off about how the town was being run into the ground, what’s the matter with you politicians, don’t you know what would happen if you tried to run a real business this way?
The issue with them was almost always money.
The town was spending too much of it.
And it was their money, after all.
That’s where the tax money came from. All of it, apparently, at least to hear them tell it. Nobody else worked or paid a dime in taxes.
Guess what party most of them belonged to?
But that’s it, isn’t it? Money. The reason people think businessmen and women make good political leaders is that they know all about money and that’s all politics is, in many voters minds, an organized effort to spend their money on things they don’t think they want or need.
And if politics is only about how the money gets spent, it makes sense that you’d want someone in charge who knows about money. And who knows more about money than people who have to make it first hand? People in business have to be smart about money.
That makes them smart, period.
Not in the way lawyers are smart or doctors are smart or college professors or scientists and engineers or great artists or even baseball managers and football coaches are smart. Smart in the way regular people are smart. Common sensically smart. Smart about practical things. Smart about how things work and how people think and feel. Smart in ways that don’t make regular folks feel dumb.
People think they know what it means to be smart about business. In fact, they’re pretty sure they could be smart themselves in that way, if they had to be and put their minds to it. They may not know how to draw up a contract or design a bridge or translate a poem from an archaic language---they don’t even know why anybody would think it was important or smart to do that---but they’re pretty sure they could run a business. Maybe not a multi-national corporation. But a bar or a restaurant or a corner grocery or a boutique or a small online business.
But even if they don’t trust themselves to run a lemonade stand let alone a car company or even a car wash, they probably know someone who does.
The main reason people feel they know how a business works and they don’t know how politics works---they just have a sense that it doesn’t, at least that it doesn’t work in the way it should, which is to their benefit---is they see businesses at work every day. They rely on their working. And, overall, they do.
Most people work in business or for a business of some kind. If they don’t think of themselves as business people, they know that somewhere in the place business people are hard at work making sure the money’s coming in so that the doors stay open and the payroll’s met---in short, that the place is doing a profitable business. And they know, perhaps only vaguely but possibly in detail, how they themselves contribute to the money making---to the profiting of the business. Meanwhile, most of their daily comings and goings outside their own workplaces take them in and out other businesses and they understand, again perhaps only vaguely but again possibly in detail, how they figure in the money making as customers or clients. They know what they need out of those businesses and they definitely know which of those businesses are providing what they need. The same is true of their friends and neighbors and relatives.
And if they aren’t business people themselves, it’s likely that there are business people among their neighbors and friends and relations. They’re far more likely to know a successful businessperson than, say, a former Secretary of State. Which, among other things, means their everyday conversations are far more likely to be about business and the making (and spending) of money than about foreign policy and statecraft. And money, its getting and spending, weighs heavily on the minds of everyone, including diplomats.
All of this is to say that business and the doings of businesspeople are familiar in ways politics and the doings of politicians are not. That familiarity might breed contempt. In fact, in a lot of people it does. There are people who think my description of a certain currently high-profile businessman above applies to all businessmen and women. They’re all lying, thieving, cheating, tax-dodging incompetents and frauds, in their experience. But it also breeds...comfort.
That’s how they stay in business, but understanding the concerns and serving the needs and interests of their clients and customers in very direct, practical, and immediately useful ways. That makes our concerns, needs, and interests, their concerns, needs, and interests, again in very direct, practical, and immediately useful ways.
So we assume.
But this leads to another thing.
Businesspeople are more in the habit of speaking in the style of us regular folks and about solving problems in the most practical and immediate ways. A thoughtful politician will talk carefully about the practicality of instituting single-payer health care at some do-able point in time. A businessman will happily bluster about fixing the problem right away, taking back the defective product and replacing it with something better immediately and, maddeningly, it will sound to most people like the politician is cold and uncaring and detached from ordinary people’s troubles and concerns and also like she’s lying or at least not telling the whole truth and like the businessman cares more about us and our problems and knows what’s wrong and how to fix it and honestly intends to set right to work fixing it.
What it comes down to is that it’s not really surprising that to the average voters the businessman sounds more like one of them than does the politician, even though he is a lying, thieving, cheating, tax-dodging incompetent and fraud.
And if this doesn’t make you feel Churchillian in your contempt for the average voter, then it probably at least has you sighing along Lincoln that you can fool some of the people all of the time and all of the people some of the time but in your despair leaving off the completion of the quote because it doesn’t take fooling all the people any of the time to get elected. Did me, anyway.
But like I said, I don’t think the woman at the physical therapist was a fool or even that she was being fooled. I think she just has a lot on her mind, too much to be devoting a lot of thought to politics in general and the two politicians running for president in this election. I have no idea whether or not she thinks about business and businesspeople in the ways I laid out. Odds are she does because I think that’s how most people think. But from her conversations with her friend in the waiting room and with the therapist all I do know is that she was mainly thinking about what I was mainly thinking about while I was there and what all the other clients in the place were mainly thinking about, what we were doing at the moment to try to get better.
She’s gotten hurt in an accident and she was having a hard time doing her job because of it. She wasn’t complaining, just telling the therapist how things had been going since her last visit. It was also Halloween and that was part of her conversations with her friend and the therapist. I could have pointed out how politics affected her recovery and her long-term health care---I don’t know just how bad her injury was or how much it’s disabled her but if Trump’s elected and she changes jobs and she still needs physical therapy or surgery or routine cortisone shots to relieve her chronic pain after he and the Republicans repeal Obamacare and replace it with their “Suck it up or Just Go Die” plan, she’ll find how just in what way he knows how to run things for the better. I could also have pointed out how politics can even affect Halloween. Local politicians routinely have to decide whether or not to postpone trick or treating because of bad weather or other unforeseen circumstances. One year when he was supervisor, Pop Mannion rescheduled Halloween at the urging of parents and teachers in town that the kids shouldn’t be out trick or treating on Sunday night. When we lived in Fort Wayne, a nearby town almost cancelled Halloween altogether because a bloc of Right Wing Christians had gotten themselves elected of the town board and they wanted to put an end to the Satanic ritual of parents sorting through the candy the kids brought home to steal their Reese’s Pieces.
I could have pointed it all out, but I didn’t. I had other things foremost on my own mind. Mainly the same thing that was foremost on her mind, why I was in the place, which, of course, was a place of business, making the head physical therapist who owns it and manages it a businesswoman.
She’s also Oliver Mannion’s one-time soccer coach and the mother of kids Oliver and Ken Mannion went to school with.
Top photo courtesy of Imperial War Museums via Wikipedia.