Why you should care
Because if American politicians excel at anything, it’s doing nothing.
The finale of “The Seven Deadly Sins of American Politics,” a special series in which OZY’s Sean Braswell examines the literal and metaphorical vices that grease the rails of American government. Get caught up with an exploration of gluttony, lust, pride, envy, wrath, greed and sloth.
You can call Frank Underwood a lot of things, but “lazy” is not one of them. “I’ve always loathed the necessity of sleep,” Netflix’s popular Machiavelli puts it in House of Cards. “Like death, it puts even the most powerful men on their backs.”
In the same way we’ve come to relish the ruthlessness of our fictional politicians like Underwood, we’ve likewise come to expect our real-life leaders to be almost indefatigably power hungry. Power is supposed to be all-consuming and always in search of an angle or advantage to beat the other guy. Truly powerful women and men, from Margaret Thatcher to Bill Clinton, are not “put on their backs” — they “put in” just four to five hours of sleep. Power stalks the corridors of the West Wing and smokes a cigarette with Claire in the early morning hours. It suspends physiology.
But not everyone who holds the reins of power is so assiduous. Sometimes power is a layabout. And viewed more broadly, the sin of political sloth only begins with being “low energy.”
Low energy candidate @JebBush has wasted $80 million on his failed presidential campaign. Millions spent on me. He should go home and relax!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 21, 2016
A President’s Job Is (Almost) Never Done
No U.S. president can ever take too few vacation days or play too little golf in the eyes of the American public. President Barack Obama “played more golf last year than Tiger Woods,” Republican nominee Donald Trump quipped at a rally last December. “We don’t have time for this. We have to work.” Obama’s tally — 269 rounds in his first seven years in office, according to CBS — however, seems puny compared to the almost 1,200 rounds Woodrow Wilson played during his term in office. Similarly, Obama’s approximately 200 vacation days to date remain well shy of his predecessor George W. Bush, who spent an astonishing 879 days — roughly two and a half years of his presidency — on vacation.
But when you’re the president of the United States, arguably the most demanding job in the world — one that demands that the commander in chief have ample opportunity to recharge — copious amounts of sleep, golf and time off might seem entirely justified. Even the case of Calvin Coolidge, lambasted as the laziest American president, is far more complicated — and understandable — than you might imagine. “Silent Cal,” known as the “do nothing” president, was fond of placing his feet in the bottom drawer of his Oval Office desk and counting the passing cars on Pennsylvania Avenue; he regularly put in four-hour workdays at the White House while sleeping 11 hours per night, plus daily naps. But less than a year into his first term as president, Coolidge’s 16-year-old son, Calvin Jr., died unexpectedly — from blood poisoning after a blister on his foot was left untreated. After that, as the first lady put it, the once-industrious president “lost his zest for living” and became virtually disabled by clinical depression.
There’s a far more common malady afflicting American politics: intellectual sloth.
Similarly, despite the complaints we may hear of a “do nothing” Congress that seems to take more recesses than votes, or a lethargic Supreme Court, set to hear its lightest case load in 70 years this upcoming fall term, it’s by and large a myth that our top-ranking government officials keep bankers’ hours. “Sloth in the narrow physical sense is quite rare in Washington,” says Claremont McKenna College politics professor John J. Pitney. “There are not actually many slothful politicians or staffers.”
No, according to Pitney, there’s a far more common malady afflicting American politics: intellectual sloth. And that’s where our leaders really fail to get off the couch.
Lounging Around the Leadership Bubble
Richard Ben Cramer begins What It Takes, his 1,047-page masterpiece on the 1988 presidential election, with a journey inside the political bubble as then Vice President George H.W. Bush travels from Washington to Houston to throw out the first pitch at a 1986 playoff baseball game in the Astrodome. It’s a trip of over 1,000 miles across a continent, but thanks to painstaking planning, it was possible for Bush, says Cramer, to “never see one person who was not a friend or someone whose sole purpose it was to serve or protect him.”
Imagine how your sense of reality, and real people, could atrophy in such a vacuum — or if you haven’t driven a car since 1996 like Hillary Clinton. It’s hard to break out of such a political cocoon, where reality is filtered by a trusted phalanx of advisers, and harder still to tackle complex problems or rethink one’s policy assumptions. One issue toward which politicians have shown a great deal of intellectual sloth, according to Pitney in The Politics of Autism, is the debate over autism, a complex problem but one that gets treated like a political football with politicians such as Donald Trump pushing the discredited notion that vaccines cause it. “It takes effort to explain these uncertainties and spell out the issue’s nuances,” says Pitney, “and too many public figures are unwilling to do that kind of work.”
Our Own Customized Cocoons
Politicians are not alone when it comes to avoiding the work necessary to make a large democracy function. Most of us don’t have our own support staffs, but we do inhabit our own bubbles, insulated by everything from Facebook algorithms to homogenous neighborhoods. In a world of tremendous information flow, it is tempting to float on the surface and redirect our frustration with the political process into cynicism and apathy instead of protest. “[I]t’s a weird kind of anger,” as one major conduit of voter outrage, Bernie Sanders, told The Washington Post. “It’s not people getting out in the streets.… We’re at the stage of demoralization.”
Lack of trust in our leaders and institutions may be rampant on both the left and the right in America, but what unites us all is our ability to rubberneck the disaster from behind the windows of our passing vehicles. During the last midterm election, voter turnout fell to its lowest point since the 1940s (around 36 percent), and as of 2012, only 65 percent of the U.S. voting-age population was even registered — compared to 91 percent in the U.K. and Canada and nearly 99 percent in Japan. In a “democracy” in which more than 60 percent of citizens decline to vote, including 80 percent of low-income Americans, should anyone be surprised that the wealthy and special interests wield so much influence? Forget Jeb Bush; if we want to point the finger at someone who is “low energy” in the political arena, then we probably need only pick up a mirror.
And that is ultimately what sloth really looks like. It’s not just about laziness or too much sleep. It is the sin of omission — it is about failing to act or live up to your duties as an officeholder, parent, neighbor or citizen. It’s about good people sitting on their hands as the Frank Underwoods of the world roll up their sleeves and grab hold of whatever they can with theirs.
But don’t take it from us. Put up your feet up and relax while Frank Underwood expounds on the virtues of the ruthless and tireless — and his distaste for sleep.