The Unnerving Need to Believe in Politicians

Sen. Kamala Harris launches her campaign for president in Oakland, Calif., January 27, 2019. (Elijah Nouvelage/Reuters)

The other day Wonkette offered an article with a headline that declares — cleaning it up for your sensitive eyes — “Kamala Harris Doesn’t Have To Explain Herself To Your Dumb [Tushes].”

Infuriated by headlines about a Harris speech declaring that she is defending her record as a prosecutor, Stephen Robinson writes:

Is Harris on trial here? Why is she “defending her record”? Did she lose all her cases like the prosecutor who faced off against Perry Mason each week? That guy needed to explain himself. Harris put [bad words] in prison. She imprisoned [bad words] so well she was the first woman elected district attorney of San Francisco and the first black woman to become attorney general of California. She’s the Serena Williams of law and order.

While she’s undoubtedly better than Hamilton Berger, Harris’s record is a little more complicated than that. The article ends with a link to the Wonkette store selling Kamala Harris merchandise.

What is interesting here isn’t Harris’s record, or not-so-surprising development that a left-of-center web site wrote a piece fervently defending Harris’s record. (Whatever else you think of Robinson’s argument, he’s absolutely right when he declares, “it’s insulting to claim that black people can only have an adversarial relationship with the criminal justice system or that a black woman can’t prosecute crimes without betraying her community.”)

What is interesting here is the adamant insistence that somehow Harris is being wronged by having her record as a prosecutor challenged, and that questioning that record is somehow inherently unjust or out of bounds, that something has gone terribly wrong with our political and journalism worlds when Harris feels the need to defend her past decisions and actions.

Years ago, discussing a mutual acquaintance that had worked on many campaigns and causes over the decades, a wise Washington reporter said, “He needs a chieftain to serve.”

Some people just need an authority figure to believe in — not just to believe that the person would be good in the job, but a figure to revere, to celebrate, to have absolute, unflinching confidence in. Politicians love the true believers, of course, and encourage it, from  — “I alone can fix it” or “He is The One.” This is a bipartisan phenomenon, and one that is not conducive to good government — or probably healthy human psychology, either. No one is perfect; no one is owed your absolute unquestioning loyalty. To quote Jonah quoting Bill Rusher, “Politicians will always disappoint you.” His point was never to like or support a politician, but to not get too attached and not to put them up on a pedestal. Governing is messy, and eventually always requires compromise. Eventually the one you adore will make a decision you can’t abide.

“This candidate doesn’t have to explain herself to you!” Er, yes, she does, as this is what candidates do. They must defend their records, explain their decision-making, lay out their values and priorities. Fans of candidates find this so objectionable are putting the “cult” back into “political culture.”

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