Is the general quality of candidates running for office in decline?

The current controversy about the rock-stupid comments made by Missouri senatorial candidate Todd Akin regarding rape and pregnancy has again made me seriously wonder if here in the U.S. we’re seeing more people of bottom-of-the-barrel quality running for office and that good qualified people of sound intelligence who would be excellent office-holders are dissuaded and discouraged from running by the American electoral system.

The way it is now, much of a candidate’s time is taken up with fund-raising. Back in the 1990s, I recall hearing a news story on NPR about the difficulty both parties were having in getting people who had seemingly impeccable qualifications to run for office. Basically, the main reason for why many of these would-be candidates declined to run was the amount of time involved in fund-raising. Since then, costs have increased considerably and, with the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United, things are going to get even worse. I think one result of this is that we’ll be seeing fewer good people running for office and many more hacks who will be more than willing to vote the way their big-money backers want.

Anyway, let’s discuss.

(This might be a Great Debates topic but I’m starting it here in Elections. If the mods want to move it, that’s okay with me.)

Congress was filled with hacks, lackeys, and nonentities from the day it was invented. Mark Twain’s famous comment is “Suppose you were an idiot. And suppose you were a member of Congress. But I repeat myself.”

Overall, there has never been a Golden Age in Congress. There have always been some excellent minds and some excellent politicians, whose Venn diagram overlaps. It’s like the Presidency to a high power. Some Presidents were better than others, but there was never a Golden Age of Presidents.

I’ve said before that today’s Congress is generally more educated, more aware, less corrupt, less beholden to state machines, and better than in the past. That’s a wholly different parameter from whether they can get anything done. Two opposing collections of sharp ideologues will get less accomplished than a sea of mediocrities who take direction from the middle.

Akin’s comment was idiotic, to be sure. But any historian could compile a collection of equally idiotic comments from past members as thick as an unabridged dictionary. People just have very short memories and comments go national more easily.

Back in the 90’s it was the rise of Global 24 hour Media and it’s insatiable desire for content. Candidates came under increasing scrutiny over the tiniest damned things. Now with the Internet, anything you do lives forever at instant recall. Stupid once back in 1994? Anyone can find that in 5 seconds or less.

As Mr. Mapcase says, there never was a golden age of good politicians. If you’ve ever read about some of the political campaigns going back to the founding of this country, you would be apalled at some of the total nonsense and bullshit fostered on the American people. Today, with that Internet thing, a candidate can be called on that and it shown false, even if his/her followers don’t accept it. Back in the day, they could spew any vile nonsense with little fear of reprisal.

From a 1984 Bloom County strip

“We need a new candidate”
“What sort of person should we look for?”
“Well, someone willing to forfeit all his dignity to a bitter presidential campaign…”
“And willing to risk personal and economic ruin.”
“All so he can reach the white house and be immediately blamed for every problem in the universe.”
“Gentlemen, we need a complete fool.”

Depends. In terms of education and refinement, yes, quality is going down. In terms of getting more regular folks into Congress, quality is going up. Almost every non-politician has at least one or two views that are pretty weird or ignorant. By punishing these strange views when they are spoken aloud, we basically tell the political community that we only want candidates who are well handled by professionals. Then we whine when they just do what they are told all the time.

You just know I have to call cite on this.

I don’t have proof, just an observation. 2010 saw a lot of businessmen and college graduates elected, as opposed to the usual law school and other postgraduates. I didn’t count them.

It is something I could find out with some effort, by counting postgraduates serving in Congress now vs. say, 20 years ago.

Is not electing someone running on a platform which’d outlaw abortion even in cases of rape punishing them?

Right. It could take up to, oh, a minute and a half to type something into Google and come up with Representatives and Senators: Trends in Member Characteristics Since 1945 R. Eric Petersen put out by the Congressional Research Service.

Check Figure 9 on page 14.

As for “refinement;” you do realize that in 1945 Congress was filled with outright bigots and demagogues, right? How exactly are you defining refinement that you can say such a thing with a straight face? Are you seriously saying that businessmen are more refined than lawyers? In what universe?

You are getting called on your outrageous unsupported assertions in every thread you enter. You should consider that a hint.


Outrageous unsupported assertion.

I really don’t think so. The draw of power tends to attract unsavory individuals in general. Most past politicians surely had skeletons in their closets, too. It’s just that with modern media and information spread, it’s much easier to *find *someone’s skeletons.

Plus, the American people today are much more savvy, demanding, and heterogeneous than they were 50+ years ago. Back in the mid-1900s, you wouldn’t have expected an average person to know anything about anyone in Congress except their own state’s representatives and the Speaker of the House. Now, every little gaffe and misspeak from every politician EVER is captured on video or in print, then disseminated worldwide in mere minutes. And there are controversies now that, due to America’s ever-increasing heterogeneity and individualism, weren’t really issues before the 60s. People will vilify or vote for a candidate now based on their beliefs wrt a single topic like illegal immigration, gun rights, gay rights, drug legalization, etc. Whereas in the '50s and before, there was no (or very little serious) debate on those issues at all. So it was much easier to “look good” back then than it is now.

I’ll refer you to this.

Ah, okay, so my assertions need backup, yours do not. Got it.

Which , refinement-wise, is probably still a step up from the 1850s when you had Rep. Preston Brooks committing assault against Sen. Charles Sumner on the Senate floor.

If I may get this thread back on topic, my intent was not to suggest that there was once a “Golden Age” where enlightened philosopher-statesmen selflessly served as representatives of the people. The history of American politics has pretty much always been full of crooks and doofuses since day one. However, I’m of the opinion things are actually finding a way to get worse and much of it can be attributed to the rising cost of running for office, the related need for constant 24/7 fund raising, and the Citizens United decision. Constant fund raising in particular seems to be a deal-breaker in dissuading many otherwise qualified people from running and I can see why. It’s a tedious soul-sucking activity that drains whatever enthusiasm one would have for the job in the first place. I could be wrong but I don’t think the need to do this was such a large concern in the past.

The need for constant fund-raising is a legitimate concern. No question that it has dissuaded otherwise qualified people.

How does that compare to older Congresses? It has always been true that otherwise qualified people have been dissuaded because of the stench of politics or the domination of bosses or the low pay or for a million other reasons. Is there any evidence that more “good” people are not running today? Not that I know of. Is there any evidence that the quality of representatives is lower than in the past? Not that I know of. Is there any evidence that fund-raising has made a significant difference in who runs? Not that I know of.

The lament about the low quality of members of Congress has been ongoing for over two centuries. People always blame whatever contemporary issue they hear about for it. It’s natural to do so, but it isn’t evidence.

Fundraising was just as important before the big changes of the 1970s, but it didn’t take as much time because you could have just a couple of wealthy benefactors cut you a check.

The complaints from politicians didn’t start until they had to fundraise non stop due to only being able to raise money in small increments. It’s not a concern over corruption, it’s that they don’t like having to do the work.

A New York Magazine article from a couple months ago described the recent Republican primary process as a “spastic goat rodeo.” I love that phrase! (Band name!)

I don’t have anything substantial to contribute to the discussion, except to suggest (as others have) that the need to constantly raise money is a big difference between high-office elected political careers now vs. then, so to the extent thar you DO find consistent patterns in differences of character, focus, life interests and experiences, etc., that’s one factor where you’re likely to find causal connections.

Some of the most intelligent, capable, willing to compromise members of Congress (Olympia Snow as a prime example) have chosen not to seek reelection due to the toxicity of the current situation. That hurts us all. It is an all-or-nothing landscape and we all suffer for it.

The fact that someone like Grover Norquist can exert so much influence on congressional elections is truly frightening.

So yes, congress has always been problematic but I tend to think the situation today is very disturbing particularly when you put it into the context of the need to operate intelligently in a global environment, especially when you consider military commitments and deficits.

Politicians are promising something for nothing and voters buy into it, and we just keep digging a deeper hole.