When we refer to something as a “con,” we use a term that has been around for quite a long time and originates in the idea of the confidence trick, a type of swindle that involves using the mental blindspots of the mark to induce him to lunge after an illusory too-good-to-be-true offer.
The most common con job today is the Nigerian scam. Millions of emails go out to lonely and retired people claiming that a prince in Nigeria needs just a few thousand dollars to unlock millions of dollars, which he will share with the mark. The mark, being both credulous and greedy, visualizes those millions just like a lottery play and pulls the trigger. His thousands — sometimes hundreds of thousands — disappear, and now the rest of us have to subsidize his survival while the scammer runs free with the dough.
A good confidence scam is a force multiplier of sorts: like martial arts, it is based on using your mark’s momentum against him and then locking him into a posture from which there is no defense. The trick must involve a semi-plausible story which like any trap is believable to the hungry and incredible to the well-fed, so that those who fall for it are afraid to tell others and others, upon seeing someone fall for it, assume it was stupidity that ensnared that poor fellow.
The way to see through a trap is to treat it as a strict business deal. X is traded for Y during time frame Z with parameters A, B and C. When exposed that bright light, most scams fade away because it becomes clear that the promise is vague. It is that vague promise which traps the consumer: motivated by zeal, he projects his mental visualization of his hopes onto the fuzzy promises made by the salesman. Then when he leaps, the salesman or con man steps back and hides behind the limited language of the promise.
Now let us look at democracy.
In theory, or rather “in terms of its stated promise,” democracy means that people select politicians on the basis of self-interest. The crowd hustles to the voting booths, and whoever gets the most votes wins, and then applies the will of We The People when he gets elected.
In reality, or by reading the strict terms of the contract, actors go on stage and offer pleasant visions. These are exchanged for votes. At that point, obligation ends; the election has been won, and the candidates — who are selected on the basis of being the “most qualified” and to whom judgment is delegated — do whatever they want. They also have a permanent excuse for non-performance, which is that the other party stopped them or the law got in the way.
The salesman claims the product being sold is government, but the real product is the sales pitch itself. Whatever makes people feel happy and warm inside, especially with women and under-30 voters, is selected on the basis of those warm feelings. Voting is a competition for who has the best speech and most flattering platform to the voters, not any choice of competence, honesty, integrity or intent to actually do the things that were promised. It is American Idol writ large.
Naturally, a good part of our political activity consists of concealing this from the voters. Politicians always talk about integrity, honesty and strong “signals” or acts which confirm an ideology or tradition. In reality, they are like any other entertainer: the one who is most comforting, interesting and good-looking wins. It has nothing to do with results in the end calculus, but the media and political pundits do their best to conceal this.
Every now and then, however, someone lets slip the lie, usually as the basis for making a second career in media and publishing:
‘Fundraising is so time-consuming I seldom read any bills I vote on,’ the anonymous legislator admits. ‘I don’t even know how they’ll be implemented or what they’ll cost.’
‘My staff gives me a last-minute briefing before I go to the floor and tells me whether to vote yea or nay. How bad is that?’
And on controversial bills, he says, ‘I sometimes vote “yes” on a motion and “no” on an amendment so I can claim I’m on either side of an issue.’
‘It’s the old shell game: if you can’t convince ’em, confuse ’em.’
Let us translate this for the audience:
Politics is a career and a job. What is the purpose of every job? To get paid. And the purpose of every career? To make a name for oneself. In order to survive, politicians — like good salesmen — must raise funds and votes. Then, they must show the right signals so that their audience follows them throughout their career. This is how they both avoid being eliminated from the game, and how they succeed at the job of politician.
You may notice that nowhere in there is effective governance mentioned. The ugly truth is that doing the job of politics correctly eliminates career advancement for the politician. The representative who gets into a position and does everything right will quickly become forgotten because good news does not make the news, especially when mundane and not all that interesting. A competitor will come along and promise free stuff instead. Career over.
‘Voters claim they want substance and detailed position papers, but what they really crave are cutesy cat videos, celebrity gossip, top 10 lists, reality TV shows, tabloid tripe, and the next f***ing Twitter message,’ the congressman gripes in the book.
‘I worry about our country’s future when critical issues take a backseat to the inane utterings of illiterate athletes and celebrity twits.’
More importantly, what is hinted at but not said here is that voters treat elections with the same seriousness that they display when approaching the news. Cute, sexy, edgy and social messages win out over substantive ones, every time.
Notice that the politician who speaks in this piece, a Democrat, gets in a little propaganda for his side:
‘The GOP have their crazy wingnuts, and we have our loony leftists. Screw them both. What we need are more common-sense lawmakers. Folks who see both sides of an issue. Who are open to accommodating each other’s priorities. Today, both sides assume their views are the only logical ones.’
Translation: “compromise” means that you must accept insanity in the name of us all getting along, which is exactly the situation that produces the conditions this politician complains about. True to form, he has put self-interest first here as well. Compromise for compromise’s sake is as stupid as war for war’s sake, or using a hammer in place of a screwdriver because you like hammers.
The grim revelations continue:
‘My main job is to keep my job, to get reelected. It takes precedence over everything.’
…’Voters are incredibly ignorant and know little about our form of government and how it works,’ the anonymous writer claims.
‘It’s far easier than you think to manipulate a nation of naive, self-absorbed sheep who crave instant gratification.’
…’Nobody here gives a rat’s a** about the future and who’s going to pay for all this stuff we vote for. That’s the next generation’s problem. It’s all about immediate publicity, getting credit now, lookin’ good for the upcoming election.’
The idea of democracy is that we are all equal. This means that no person should rule like a king because, if we are all equal, he is just as fallible as the rest of us. Instead, we have a System: a maze of rules designed to limit power so that it works out for the best. But in reality, it is just another sales job.