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Cannibals for constituents and missionaries for dinner

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  • Politicians promise the moon and then it’s off to the next gig. To steal from H. L. Mencken: “If a politician found he had cannibals among his constituents, he would promise them missionaries for dinner.”

Every four years, the inmates get to run the asylum in the United States. Welcome to the nuthouse. We the People, armed with ballots and sandwich boards, parade around and hope “our guy” wins — despite almost none of us knowing or caring how the electoral college even works. “Nobody ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public,” wrote the famed journalist H. L. Mencken. Ouch, he was talking about me. Truth hurts, truth hurts.

During presidential elections, we bang the drums of change and give couch-lectures on all things politically relevant — budget, health care, energy or foreign affairs — and then we politely disregard all that and vote for our favorite candidate. After all, the U.S. presidential race is a popularity contest extraordinaire. In 1787, two years before he became president, John Adams wrote the following: Popularity was never my mistress, nor was I ever, or shall I ever be a popular man.

Things have changed since the powdered-wig era of Mr. Adams. These days, two years before candidates run they begin appearing on every television talk show they can grease their way onto: Leno, Letterman, Stewart, The View. They promise the moon, the audience applauds, and then it’s off to the next gig. Again, to steal from Mencken: “If a politician found he had cannibals among his constituents, he would promise them missionaries for dinner.”

Cynics might say the U.S. electoral system relies on the madness of the crowd — and it does, but only to an extent. Our American forefathers were scared to death of the crowd; frightened by the rabble. They set up the framework of representative democracy to protect us from ourselves. It was a great, grand experiment — and it worked.

Every four to eight years, the most powerful office in the world changes hands without a drop of blood being shed. The most powerful leader on the planet simply packs his bags, goes home, and a new actor takes the part. The process is stunning in its consistency. For the rest of the world, consistent forms of leadership are usually accompanied by piano wire and electrodes.

Obama will soon be running against whichever Republican candidate spills out of the pack. It will be a circus; it always is. Candidates will be destroying each other or destroying themselves. Woodrow Wilson’s maxim, “Never murder a man who is committing suicide,” is surely the most commonly ignored campaign advice in U.S. history.

I suppose Mencken is probably right about my intelligence, but that’s OK. The U.S. presidential election is the greatest show on earth and I am blessed just to have a ticket. For now, I’m going to retreat to my couch and preach about pressing political issues — and then I’m going to vote for my favorite candidate.

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