In a recent essay by Joseph Epstein in the Wall Street Journal, he wonders if the then five remaining presidential candidates from both parties are the best quality candidates for that office that we should expect. A reader wrote in response, pointing out that Alexis de Tocqueville answered this question in 1835 in his classic, Democracy in America, as follows:
“In the United States, the pursuit of wealth generally diverts men of great talents and strong passions from the pursuit of political power; and it frequently happens that a man does not undertake to direct the fortunes of the state until he has shown himself incompetent to conduct his own. The vast number of very ordinary men who occupy public stations is quite as attributable to these causes as to the bad choice of democracy. In the United States I am not sure that the people would choose men of superior abilities even if they wished to be elected; but it is certain that candidates of this description do not come forward.”
This analysis actually fairly closely parallels Epstein, who writes that superior people are no longer attracted to politics. They stay away, he says, because so much connected with contemporary political life is degrading, and he believes that the media and the Internet are the major instruments of contemporary political degradation.
In his book, American Colossus: The Triumph of Capitalism, 1865-1900, H. K. Brands notes that Scottish immigrant writer James Bryce addressed this issue in America in the late 1880s and concluded that “the best men–those with the most conspicuous talent and ambition–looked elsewhere than politics for their challenges and rewards” for somewhat similar reasons, but added an obvious one, which is that “eminent men make more enemies and give those enemies more assailable points than obscure men do”. And he observed that this was a particularly chronic issue for Americans because of their system of democracy and that it was most striking at the very top of the political pyramid, the presidency.
The Wall Street Journal editorial board has referred to the 17 GOP primary contenders as “the strongest presidential field in memory”. Really? I have given all these perspectives a lot of thought over the past several months of this most provocative and in many ways disappointing presidential primary in memory. What do you think? Is this the best we can do?