“All parts of the Bell Curve of society are well represented,” one lawmaker told me, pondering the assortment of many dolts and at least a few deviates who count as colleagues.
A senator observed that ambition and discipline count for a lot, but the greatest factor of why one politician makes it to the Senate while others remain on city council is luck: “The bottom 80 percent of this place is no different than the bottom 80 percent of any typical city council.”
Here’s something to keep in mind whenever you are reading about some politician or legislative battle. Years of covering politics make me think that most people who follow politics from afar have an exaggerated perception of most elected officials. Sometimes this magnification flows from idealism. Civics classes in youth can create a lasting impression that politicians are, or should be, the solons of democratic theory. More often, these days, distorted perceptions flow from cynicism. Even corrupt politicians are supposed to be sinister in an outsized and brilliant way, like Frank Underwood in House of Cards.
What both vantage points tend to understate is the pervasive ordinariness of many people who belong to the bottom four quintiles rather than the top one.
Journalism and political science, meanwhile, tend to focus on the ways that democracy is being distorted by structural factors. Gerrymandering of congressional seats encourages partisan zealots instead of conscientious servants of the public interest. A media-saturated political culture attracts more narcissists to Washington than ever, helping explain the high number of sex scandals. There is probably something to these theories. But the more salient reality is probably that elected representatives are indeed quite representative of the electorate.
Ponder Eccelesiastes 9:11: “I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.”