Most people don’t believe me when I tell them this, but it’s true: In 2010 I was teaching my introductory course in US National Government on a campus in South Carolina when – and I can’t remember exactly what caused it – I said to my class: “Within our lifetime, a reality TV star will be elected president of the United States.” But even I never imagined that the host of The Apprentice wouldn’t become president until seven years later.
When I teach that US government course, I try to convince students to take their citizenship seriously. It is a homily as thousands of students have heard me give 14 weeks for many years. The men who wrote this Constitution and the countless millions who gave their lives so that “government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the face of the earth,” all assumed that we would always live up to their expectations. comply and vote according to our interests. The promise of democracy is that we all bring a little rational deliberation to the polls about what’s best for me and my community.
So I’m sure I was in that classroom complaining about the state of American politics. I know I was trying to convey to my students how little the calculation of rational self-interest factored into much voter behavior, how bad the state of our politics is that at the time it even seemed conceivable for a totally unqualified reality TV personality to run for office. once held by Washington, by Lincoln, by both Roosevelts. But it had become conceivable.
And then it happened.
It is for all those reasons today (and knowing that I mentioned Donald Trump’s election years before it happened) that I look at George Santos with desperation.
You might be tempted to read this as a joke about George Santos (RN.Y.) putting “President of the United States” on his resume. But I’m not kidding. I fear that Santos – or another charlatan like him – may one day become president of the United States. In exactly the same way I said it in 2010, I mean to say it today – it should seem unthinkable, but it isn’t. And that is exactly what worries me.
When I talk in class about the fact that too many of us don’t vote the way the people who gave us this political system hoped we would vote, I’m really talking about negative partisanship. For too many voters, it seems to matter less who a candidate is or what a party will do once in power than simply beating the other party.
Our politics are so polarized these days, just winning is enough.
For voters whose imaginations have been caught in the game of partisan politics, the fact that their vote actually produces results against their interests makes no difference whatsoever. The phenomenon has been documented at least since Thomas Frank’s 2004 book, “What’s the Matter with Kansas?” But we also know that the Trump administration’s way of governing against COVID mitigation and vaccination has primarily victimized Trump voters.
It’s a perversion of democracy, people vote against their own interests only so they can feel the fleeting triumph of defeating the other side. But here we are.
And this is what brings me to George Santos.
Good questions are being asked about how Santos got his seat in the US House of Representatives. This week he reviewed a campaign file to indicate that a $500,000 campaign loan was not his money, a fact that will almost certainly bring him under further legal scrutiny. It all happens naturally, in its own time.
There are other questions for us to ask.
We might ask, “How is it that money has such power in our political system that it can make such a clearly unqualified candidate not only competitive but victorious?”
We might ask, “How is it that voter and journalist interest in candidates for the House of Representatives is so low that Santos’ fantastic resume was not subjected to a lengthy scrutiny until after Election Day?”
We might ask, “What happened to the major political parties whose job (according to all political science textbooks) is to screen and vet candidates for office?”
We might ask, “How cowardly is the narrow majority of House Republicans and Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) that they would seat and keep Santos in their conference knowing that he poses a security risk simply because they lose his vote?” needed to keep Hakeem. Jeffries from the speakership?’
Those are all good questions, and there are other good ones as well. They all point to serious problems in our political system.
But the most serious problem of all is that too many voters seem to enjoy the entertainment of our politics a little too much – enjoying it, yes, at the expense of “the other side” but also at their own expense.
George Washington warned us in his farewell address that our desire to defeat the other side could lead us to ruin. The writers of The Federalist Papers were sure they had given us all possible protection against choosing people with “Talents for low intrigue”. But we know the danger is here, it’s obvious and it’s there.
And as long as that remains the case, we cannot rule out the possibility that George Santos or someone else like him could become president of the United States. We need to think about this soberly and thoroughly now, tomorrow and with every vote.
Steven P. Millies, a political theorist, is a professor of public theology and director of The Bernardin Center at the Catholic Theological Union in Chicago. Follow him on Twitter @stevenpmillies