There should be few higher honors than politics — to be elected by others to serve as their representative, and to devote one’s life to that duty. But politicians have changed from lifelong public servants to short-termists who seek speaking fees, advisory roles, or celebrity stardom after leaving office.
At Stanford, the bar is even lower. All it takes to be idolized is to have served somewhere, in some position, and to preach progressivism and have a cuddly relationship with Beyonce.
A few weeks ago, I found myself waiting anxiously for one of SIG’s biggest events of the year, “An Evening with Barbara Boxer,” with the recently retired Senator for California. I was excited to hear Boxer’s perspectives on her career in public service, the Democratic Party’s 2016 election failure, and expectations for Trump’s first presidential term.
Boxer had the chance to engage an intelligent audience on issues that genuinely matter. Instead, we heard a motley assortment of meaningless liberal punchlines. Boxer criticized Trump’s fitness to office with a voice bordering on a low moan. She had essentially no words for Republican politicians’ proposals beyond crass comments about their demeanour. On rebuilding the smouldering political wreck that is the DNC, her most valuable contribution was to trot out the tired platitude of building “diverse coalitions”.
Though the event did have brighter moments, it was largely devoid of relevant, or interesting, political analysis. Not that anyone seemed to care. About halfway through the talk, the girl in front of me stopped even pretending to listen to Boxer, and instead grabbed a Snapchat of the Senator with the thought-provoking caption, “omg my hero.” Meanwhile, the group of students behind me spent the time before the event cooing over a picture one of them took with Cory Booker.
Of course, Boxer faced almost no tough questions about herself, her policy record, or her party’s future. She repeated a blatant mistruth — that the Republican healthcare bill will mean twenty million Americans lose health insurance — and was greeted with eager nods. When a libertarian dared speak up about the IRS’s enforcement powers, Boxer obnoxiously dismissed his question to the smugness of the audience. And, worst of all, when Boxer told us that she somehow just knew that Iraq didn’t have weapons of mass destruction back in 2003, my surrounding peers expressed shock, delight, and amazement in equal proportion at the Senator’s mystical intuition instead of realizing the sheer preposterousness of her statement.
“An Evening with Barbara Boxer” undoubtedly saw glimpses of meaningful political commentary — I found her rise through finance and politics as a woman to be inspiring, and she gave occasional nuanced responses to difficult questions such as campaign finance reform. However, more often than not, the event felt like a game of meaningless finger-snapping. It failed to engage its participants in a level of political conversation suited to a US Senator representing the country’s most populous state. Instead, Boxer’s juvenile game of virtue-signalling — playing upon our presupposed disdain for Trump, our support for feminism, and even the Stanford-Cal rivalry — left the crowd with yet another progressive persona to admire, but no new political knowledge.
It would be unfair to entirely blame SIG or Boxer for this phenomenon, though. Essentially all ‘politics’ at Stanford has become insidious idolization. Our mailing lists are stuffed full of ludicrous Biden memes. Our laptops have Obama 2012 and “I’m Still With Her” stickers on the back, as if Hillary will rise from the political graveyard or Trump will quake in his boots at these symbols of ‘resistance’. “The Notorious RBG” is worshipped for her progressivism, and her condemnation of Colin Kaepernick is conveniently ignored as a result.
Our infatuation with Michelle Obama’s fashion and affability has led to calls for her to run for president, even though all we know about her political viewpoints is that she isn’t Donald Trump and wants schoolchildren to exercise. Idolizing Kamala Harris would be noble were it not for the fact that I have yet to see a single fan of hers cite a policy she has implemented — instead, her support on the Farm seems wholly due to her minority identity and occasional #NoBanNoWall tweets.
This essentialist idolization is embarrassing and infantile. It strangles meaningful political debate and analysis, turning politics into a meme war and dragging the noble efforts of the Stanford Political Union and Political Journal further into the gutter. Worse still, it creates dangerous political apathy when the addictive personalities and dramas of the political world fade away — turning us away from policy just when we need to be informed more than ever.
Nowhere is political idolization more apparent than in President Obama. Obama’s close relationship with his children and wife often make him the subject of “dad jokes,” and his close relationship with Biden has turned into a never-ending series of memes. Light-hearted Buzzfeed videos of Obama’s antics, coupled with a ten-second snippet from a political speech, have elevated Obama to God-like status in liberal California.
What has resulted from the Obama idolization is the development of the affective heuristic, where we allow our emotions and attachment to Obama being a good person to cloud our judgment of his policies. Despite a witty sense of humour and picture-perfect family, Obama also expanded our drone strike program in the Middle East, violating international law and killing hundreds of innocent civilians. He maintained the least transparent administration in presidential history, and sat by while the worst humanitarian crisis of our time unfolded in Syria. He engaged in illegal spying on our closest allies, and continued to provide support to regimes with oppressive human rights records like Saudi Arabia. The Human Rights Watch viewed Obama’s term unfavorably — perhaps something of a shock to those enamored with Obama’s inspiring speeches on America being welcoming to all. We see Obama as a lover of humanity in his selective defense of illegal immigrants and Syrian refugees, while filtering out information that contradicts this angelic image.
Meanwhile, our projection of Trump as an ugly and pompous brat with a history of abusing women and exploiting low-income workers makes it impossible to assess political reality. When Trump enacted policies that aligned with this caricature — his immigration ban, or his proposals to build a wall — Stanford valiantly fought back with hundreds of tweets.
But Trump has also called for paid maternity leave; he intervened effectively in Syria where, by contrast, Obama stayed silent and trusted the Russians (who, unsurprisingly, lied); and he has announced plans for massive infrastructure investment and tax code reform. All of these measures are popular across the political spectrum. Yet essentially nobody talks about or commends them on the Farm, because they jar so strongly with the image of Trump that our psyche wills us to hold.
The idolization of politicians threatens to destroy meaningful, policy-based discussion. But even worse, once we attach ourselves to an idol — and not a politician, with actual policies — it is far too easy to get bored. Trump’s travel ban is unconstitutional and his wall has been blocked by Congress. The angry liberals who protested so strongly in January are gone, replaced by a wall of apathy even as his policies — which include cuts to social welfare programs and a pivot away from human rights — grow more realistic, and thus more important to discuss.
The fetishization of politicians goes far beyond Obama and Trump. The idolatry behind the “Notorious RBG” prevents us from seeing the dangerous politicization of her (deliberately apolitical) role. It existed with Bernie Sanders, and continues to exist today with Warren, Clinton, and Harris. As we focus more on looks and affability, we become less informed and rational in our understanding of complex political situations.
The idolatry we see today is a modern reincarnation of the Founders’ greatest fear: rule by the ignorant masses. Politicians have two jobs: to listen to what people want, then do it. Respect them as enactors of the popular will, but don’t worship them as pop art.