When you live and vote in Texas, the subject of incompetency is hardly an unfamiliar one. Our elected officials seem to have a particular knack for not knowing what the hell they’re doing.
There’s Republican Louie Gohmert, the East Texas congressman who has an at-best tenuous grip on reality and a bizarre fixation on sexual relations, both human and animal. He’s compared ammunition magazine limits to allowing humans to marry animals and opposed allowing gay Americans to enlist for military service because he believed they would give each other massages on the front lines instead of fighting. His legislative record includes co-sponsoring a “birther” bill that would have required presidential candidates to submit birth certificates to prove eligibility for office.
There’s Republican Blake Farenthold, the South Texas congressman whose most famous achievement is, after five years in office, but being the guy who once wore a pair of duck pajamas in a photograph with scantily clad woman. He won his most recent re-election bid by more than 30,000 votes.
And there are a host more, folks who weren’t good at much of anything until they started not being good at politics. Noted Dick Cheney doormat George W. Bush. Right-wing radio host turned-lieutenant-governor Dan Patrick. Jonathan Stickland, the North Texas state representative who exists to badger his colleagues.
But like all wounds left to fester, things now seem to be taking a significant turn for the worse when it comes to sheer unfitness for elected office.
Our agriculture commissioner, Sid Miller, blew tens of thousands of dollars on decorating his office with taxidermied animals upon taking up the position last year. In March, news broke that Miller recently traveled to Oklahoma on the taxpayer dime so that he could get something called a “Jesus shot” from a convicted felon who served time for medical fraud and tax evasion. After less than a year on the job last December, he jacked up fees on farmers and business owners so he could dole out a load of bonuses to new employees.
Over in the race to the bottom for a position on the State Board of Education, East Texan Mary Lou Bruner has proudly stood by some hair-raising Facebook posts in which she’s accused President Obama of being a gay prostitute and asserted that not opposing Common Core educational standards is tantamount to facilitating Nazism.
And at the national level, the two-legged embodiment of incompetency is currently positioned as the GOP frontrunner for the presidential nomination: Donald Trump. In a mid-March interview with the Washington Post editorial board, Trump spouted naught but redirections, misdirections and pure, unadulterated narcissistic drivel when asked serious questions about domestic and foreign policy. The man daily changes his positions, if they even deserve the term, flip-flopping and back-pedaling about everything from immigration to abortion.
What these elected and would-be elected officials have in common is a campaign narrative that positions them as folksy, down-to-earth ‘Muricans, so different from the career politicians they deride as out-of-touch wonks. Voters eat it up. What I can’t figure out is why.
Good politics takes a pretty special combination of intellectual and social skill. Like any other profession where the public interest is at stake — teaching, medicine, the law — “folksy” ought to be real far down the list of necessary qualifications. A good bedside manner surely doesn’t hurt, but I don’t want a friendly surgeon who’s fuzzy on the difference between a liver and a spleen.
And yet, a certain kind of ignorance is often peddled as a good thing — such as a strong stance against the evil of “political correctness,” (the very basic social contract that asks folks to not just be completely racist or sexist in their everyday bearing) or a penchant for “telling it like it is.”
But there’s no evidence that shows the good ol’ boys and gals banking on personality to score them a public office are particularly effective lawmakers, and a lot that suggests that, when that’s all they’ve got under their hats, they aren’t. What we ought to be looking for in elected officials is a dedication to smart policy, public service and evidence-based solutions to existing problems.
Where we can find a couple of those folks? On the national Democratic ticket. Despite Bernie Sanders’ bizarre recent claims that Hillary Clinton, a former U.S. senator and the former secretary-of-damn-state, is “unqualified” for the presidency, both candidates’ breadth of experience and policy expertise make the GOP field look like nursery school. This bickering about “qualification” leaves me feeling like a kid stuck in the back seat while mom and dad fight about what’s for dinner. Both Clinton and Sanders are certain to approach the presidency with more aptitude than their conservative challengers.
If our elected representatives are great folks to grab a beer with, so much the better — just as long as it’s not the chaser for a Jesus shot.
[Featured image of Sid Miller on election night 2015 by Jen Reel.]