My son is at that age where popularity and coolness have entered his consciousness. As much as I try to instill what’s important, it’s almost impossible to insulate yourself from the desire to be liked by as many of your peers as possible in the third grade. And so I see him trying: his hair is gelled into a perfectly coiffed faux-hawk. He can’t resist jumping on every opportunity to be the funny kid in class. And when a joke lands, he can’t keep from repeating it, until that dead horse is laying on his Air Jordan high-tops. He doesn’t have the life experience or maturity to know that cool happens when you stop trying (so they tell me) and that the more you try to contrive a funny moment, the less it is. To quote the movie Mean Girls, “Stop trying to make [it] happen.”
Our political superstars have risen up through the ranks in reality show-type peaks of popularity, in moments that have caught the public’s attention in just the right way, at the exact moment we were ready for it. Barack Obama’s poignant speech at the DNC in 2004 was a welcome break from the blandness of the candidates who had been presented in front of us, making them look old, boring and unintelligent by comparison. It was the platform from which he would later rise to the highest office in the country. Sarah Palin had her moment at the RNC four years later when she was thrust onto the world’s stage as John McCain’s running mate. Despite the fact that it would later be proven that she had a casual relationship with honesty and intelligence, she was a welcome diversion from the uptight white men who dominated the right. It was so powerful that she still commands huge audiences on speaking tours and on Fox News.
You’ve likely only heard of Wendy Davis of Texas since she famously filibustered the Senate in order to stave off crippling anti-choice laws in Texas. She drew ire from Governor Rick Perry and failed in her effort to stem the tide of anti-abortion legislation in her state, but that doesn’t matter. Because her stand against the vaginal-probe wielding Texas legislature captured the voice of the zeitgeist at the moment women’s rights abuses all over the country, but especially in Texas, were coming to a head. Davis’s filibuster, in her Mizuno Wave rider pink sneakers, was the moment a political star was born. She will likely use this momentum to run for higher office, and will be afforded newspaper column inches and prime time news show minutes for the foreseeable future. The political world is hers to lose.
So it makes sense why ambitious young politicians would attempt to skip the whole put-your-time-in-and-see-how-this-government-thing-works in favor of creating their own political superstar moments and rising to fame. This is a political culture brought to you by American Idol and other reality-show based fame contests. The old pathways of the Joe Bidens and Robert Byrds are outdated, cast-away like the crooners of yesteryear in favor of digitally remastered voice recordings.
Case in point: Ted Cruz. Yesterday, Texas Senator Cruz threw his hat into the ring for super-stardom by staging a filibuster to defund the Affordable Care Act. Hey! If it worked for Wendy Davis, why wouldn’t it work for Cruz? Unfortunately for him, he sought to answer this question on the Senate floor, and not in his own head. And not by staying on topic and waging a legitimate filibuster, but by reading Dr. Seuss and his twitter feed in what wasn’t even a real filibuster. He was actually talking to hear himself speak, and to see himself on television screens and in column inches. But he’s become not the newly discovered darling of the Republican party that he’d hoped, but largely a joke who proved that he doesn’t understand how the government works or what a filibuster actually is. Even though he spoke for twenty-one hours, there was no way his “filibuster” could impact the Senate vote on the government funding bill. And so it was an empty grab for attention.
And that’s what I have tried to get across to my kid. You can’t force a moment to happen. You can’t contrive it. You can’t chase it. You have to put your head down and do your work. Because the harder you try, the more desperate you’ll seem.
And desperate never won a popularity contest.