“And he said unto them, Ye are they which justify yourselves before men; but God knoweth your hearts: for that which is highly esteemed among men is abomination in the sight of God.”
It will surprise no one to hear that politicians are hypocrites. Even the word “politics” today works as a de facto synonym for not practicing what you preach. To be a “skilled politician” means you’re good at saying all the right things while hiding your intent to do the opposite most of the time. Only within the morally corrupt confines of the Beltway is the phrase regarded as a compliment.
For millennia now, moralists have assailed hypocrisy not only as a despicable personal trait, but also a stain on one’s soul. Even if you could fool other people into believing what you say, even if they never caught on to your self-serving and double-crossing, God could see straight through you. One way or another, you will be judged. People in general, and voters in particular, despise hypocrisy. Actions speak louder than words, and empty promises will come back to bite you. You can only bullshit your fellow humans so much—eventually they will catch on and hold you accountable.
The problem, though, is that none of this is true. The cup of political history overfloweth with proof that reliably rank moral dishonesty pays off in public life—one of the most glaring cases in point is Senior Kentucky Senator and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.
I have developed an unhealthy obsession with McConnell’s political career, not because there’s anything interesting about him personally (the only universally shared opinion about McConnell seems to be that he’s got the charisma of a tub of Vaseline), but because he’s the purest embodiment of some of our most significant political contradictions. And the baseline contradiction from which all the others flow is this: if hypocrisy is such a unanimously despised trait, then how did someone like McConnell become one of the most powerful people in the country?
Having read numerous lengthy profiles of one of the most outwardly boring people in the galaxy, I’ll spare you the long yarns about how a Southern boy who contracted polio at age two ascended the local and national ranks of government without ever losing a single electoral race. For a thorough account of McConnell’s career that simultaneously traces the evolution of the GOP over the past four decades, read Alec MacGillis’s sharp biography The Cynic: The Political Education of Mitch McConnell. If you have the stomach for it, compare MacGillis’s book with McConnell’s own propagandistic memoir, The Long Game.
He’s a bowl of porridge whose girlfriend dumped him for gruel.
Perhaps the single-most perplexing feature of McConnell’s life as a professional politician is the most painfully obvious one: the guy is the epitome of unlikeability. From the beginning of his political career, friends and competitors alike have remarked on McConnell’s coldness and lack of basic amiability, his astoundingly bland and awkward bearing as an orator, and, of course, his flaccid physical demeanor, like a turtle without a shell. In his 1977 campaign for county judge in Jefferson County, Kentucky, McConnell raised enough money to hire the (very expensive) pollster and strategist Tully Plesser along with the ad producer Robert Goodman. Goodman himself said of McConnell, his own client, “He isn’t interesting. He doesn’t have an aura, an air of mystery about him.” Mitch McConnell is the human equivalent of eggshell paint. He’s a bowl of porridge whose girlfriend dumped him for gruel. You get the picture.
More perplexing still is this reptilian nonentity’s nugatory track record in terms of doing anything to incrementally improve our shared public life. You’d be hard pressed to find someone outside of D.C. who knows or remembers McConnell for remotely good reasons. For liberals and leftists, McConnell’s impeccably punchable face has been the symbol of cynical Republican obstructionism over the last eight years. And for the terminally aggrieved conservative base that Trump stole away from the GOP establishment, McConnell was often painted as too ready to reach compromises with the Obama administration, especially on the showdowns over raising the debt ceiling (2011) and avoiding the fiscal cliff (2013). On the far right, McConnell’s a spineless “cuckservative” puppet of corporate interests, plain and simple.
These latter complaints will, no doubt, baffle anyone left of center. After all, this is the same man who famously declared in 2010 that “The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.” This is also the man who followed through on that pledge by leading the GOP’s congressional charge to throw sand in the gears of government at every turn during Obama’s presidency.
Beyond outright petulance, the logic behind McConnell’s strategy was clear. As Michael Grunwald explained in Politico, “Republican leaders simply did not want their fingerprints on the Obama agenda; as McConnell explained, if Americans thought D.C. politicians were working together, they would credit the president, and if they thought D.C. seemed as ugly and messy as always, they would blame the president.” (That this strategy did not, in fact, make Obama a one-term president had little to do with McConnell’s search-and-destroy legislative philosophy, and almost everything to do with the GOP’s nomination of private-equity Fauntleroy Mitt Romney as the president’s 2012 challenger.)
Obama stoked the hopes of voters in 2008 for a “post-partisan” way of doing politics that would allegedly put country over party differences. And in the wake of a disastrous Bush presidency, capped off by a crippling economic recession, it appeared that the buoyant Obama wave was pushing the modern GOP closer and closer to oblivion. If the American people began to sense that things were, indeed, getting better under Obama, that would be the death knell for the modern Republican party.
When others in the party began to panic, though, McConnell buckled down. Harkening back to the infamous tactics of Newt Gingrich, McConnell followed this fathomlessly cynical logic to its culmination, weaponizing his branch of Congress to deny the Obama administration any chance whatsoever to claim post-partisanism was working, even if that meant torpedoing the public’s faith in government entirely.
McConnell’s plan proved a (quite literal) smashing success. After eight years of intentionally driving the government into crippling gridlock, McConnell at last has everything he ever wanted—Obama’s gone, Republicans control every branch of government, and he’s fastened his turtle chompers onto the job he’s obsessed over for most of his adult life. In The Long Game, McConnell confesses that, while just about every ambitious senator on the Hill is gunning for the ultimate prize of one day commanding the Oval Office, this was never his goal. “When it came to what I most desired,” he writes, “and the place from which I thought I could make the greatest difference, I knew deep down it was the majority leader’s desk I hoped to occupy one day.” That day came in January of 2015.
There was one big unforeseen consequence, though. As one of the chief architects of the GOP’s scorched-earth strategy during the Obama years, McConnell had created the basic conditions for the Senate’s—and indeed, the GOP’s—own public immolation. Even if it meant filibustering their own proposals, Republicans wanted to expose the useless guts of a broken system to the public and try to pin as much of the blame on Obama as possible. In the process of burning down Washington, though, they cleared a path for the anti-Obama, a loud-mouthed beast who would capitalize on the collective lost faith in the government establishment they themselves had used to fuel a fire that was now burning beyond their control.
This is what makes McConnell such an easy target now. After years of intransigent, uncompromising warfare with the Obama vision, he now must figure out some way to jumpstart the same machine he’s tried so hard to drive into the dirt. It is thus with a peculiar mixture of schadenfreude and fury that we are now treated to the ongoing spectacle of Mitch’s hypocrisy—Mitch-pocrisy, if you will—laid bare. As with Trump, the law of digital irony continuously seems to affirm that, for every injunction McConnell makes during the current administration, there’s a clip somewhere of him saying the exact opposite during the Obama years. Here’s a small, yet fragrant, sampling:
- After the death of Justice Antonin Scalia, McConnell spearheaded Senate Republicans’ adamant refusal to hold a single hearing for any new justice nominated by then-President Obama. The result was the longest Supreme Court vacancy in American history (422 days) and the inevitable appointment of Trump’s Supreme Court nominee, Neil Gorsuch. When Democrats threatened to filibuster the appointment, McConnell, without a hint of irony, had the gall to turn around and declare that the “the American people simply [would] not tolerate” Democrats’ attempts to block Trump’s Supreme Court appointees.
- In 2009, acting as Senate Minority Leader, McConnell issued a letter to then-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) demanding that all presidential cabinet nominees complete thorough background checks, including “financial disclosures,” before hearings were scheduled. This stands in direct opposition to the McConnell-led GOP strategy to rush through hearings for Trump’s cabinet appointees before they completed ethics evaluations and background checks. This has been especially worrisome given that Trump has appointed the wealthiest cabinet in American history—and the vast financial holdings of its members have received no sustained public scrutiny.
- In 2005, after Senate Democrats had filibustered a number of George W. Bush’s appellate court nominations, McConnell, then the majority whip, threatened that the GOP was ready to invoke the “nuclear” option, which would involve a rules change to eliminate the filibuster for judicial nominees. Democrats and Republicans reached a compromise to save the filibuster. In 2013, though, Senate Democrats “went nuclear” and, through a historic rules change, eliminated the use of the filibuster on all presidential nominees except those nominated for the Supreme Court. Ever shameless, McConnell said it was a “sad day in the history of the Senate.” Then, in order to approve the appointment of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court, McConnell invoked the final nuclear option, eliminating the filibuster and allowing Supreme Court nominations to be approved with a simple majority.
These recent examples of McConnell’s outlandish hypocrisy are just the tip of the iceberg; he has spent his entire career flip-flopping. As John Yarmuth, Kentucky’s only Democratic congressman, told a union crowd in 2014, “Mitch McConnell has been the same cold-hearted, power-hungry politician for the entire forty-six years I’ve known him . . . He’s like a windmill—whichever way the wind blows, he goes. He doesn’t have any core values. He just wants to be something. He doesn’t want to do anything.” Perhaps what’s most distressing about this is that virtually none of us register it as anything resembling news. Everyone knows McConnell is a slimy hypocrite. What’s worse, everyone knows that his hypocrisy works.
Everyone knows McConnell is a slimy hypocrite. What’s worse, everyone knows that his hypocrisy works.
Without fail, McConnell invariably defends each of his 180 degree turns the same way most Republicans do: by pointing out that Democrats do the same thing. And he’s right: Democrats also switch positions, Democrats also obstruct, Democrats are also hypocrites. On the surface, this is no more than an adult resorting to the logic of a four-year-old (“they started it!”). It in no way refutes the charge of hypocrisy; it simply asserts that hypocrisy is the norm. But remember this: Mitch McConnell doesn’t consider himself a hypocrite. And in some twisted way, neither do I.
Everything here depends on understanding that McConnell’s career embodies the perfect functioning of politics as it is. He is the soulless corpse that’s left when every fantasy about how politics is supposed to be is stripped away. In that sense alone, he is no hypocrite; in fact, he’s one of the most consistent specimens of dismal Realpolitik you’ll find. He has adhered to one singular principle throughout his entire career: power. Like a dog chasing a truck, McConnell has dedicated his political career to the pursuit of that single principle.
Aside from blocking Obama at all costs, then, it actually makes perfect sense that, as Jonathan Martin writes, “[McConnell’s] greatest contribution to American politics may be that he was a plaintiff in a case that eventually led to the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, which opened the door to unlimited corporate political contributions and the subsequent rise of super PACs.” McConnell fiercely opposed the bipartisan 2002 “McCain-Feingold” act, which banned the use of “soft money” in political campaigns. The bill eventually passed against McConnell’s best efforts. Nevertheless, he persisted. McConnell actually filed a suit in federal court (McConnell v. Federal Election Commission) in the hopes of blocking the work of his Senate colleagues, which he argued amounted to an unconstitutional infringement on “freedom of speech.” This argument would become a pillar of mainstream political discourse and, of course, also served as the bedrock of the Citizen’s United defense in 2010—you have old Mitch to thank for that.
Since his first campaign in 1977, which broke all precedent for campaign spending in county elections in Jefferson County, McConnell has understood better than most the great truth at the heart of American “democracy.” It’s not just that wealth buys political power, but that political power serves wealth. It would be a mistake to accuse McConnell of being a politician who’s beholden to big donors and corporate interests because that would imply there’s some sort of ideal disconnect between the two. For McConnell, there isn’t. There is power, and there are obstacles to attaining power. These, and nothing else, are the coordinates of politics.
And this is why hypocrisy is ultimately a hollow and irrelevant charge to level against politicians like McConnell. This moral indictment presumes that the ultimate sin lies solely within the heart and actions of the hypocrite. And the tacit faith behind the charge is that hypocritical politicians are somehow shameable and punishable—that their dirty soul will either suffer just punishment or be made to come clean, in the tradition, say, of Lee Atwater’s deathbed confessions.
What’s more, this vision of the larger moral economy of American governance presupposes that the political system in which they operate is fine: if we could only stock it with good, honest people, we wouldn’t have many of these problems. But both the form and substance of McConellism have exposed such wishful thinking as just that. McConnell is indeed a vile human being for all the reasons you think he is, but the fact of his continued political success says more about the system he’s mastered than anything else. This is why, for all the pure hatred I feel toward McConnell, I can’t stop reading about him. My obsession with his career is rooted in my morbid fixation on the dead or dying tissue of our great American fantasies about power, goodness, and government. When such fantasies are scrubbed off completely, all that’s left is power—and power is the transactional lifeblood pumping through Mitch McConnell shriveled dark heart.
Take a step back for a moment. Quickly take stock of the world at large and your place in it—consider how much of your life is guided by something we could call affirmative will, an independent capacity for deciding how you are going to exist. Weigh this against how much of your life unfolds as responsive submission to forces out of your control (employment, bills, law, war, institutionalized prejudice, private industry and the global economy, etc.). On a daily basis, such forces exercise power over you by setting, in the most expanded sense of the disturbingly clinical term, the “cost of living.” The way one lives is, at base, an expression of the struggle of will against power. And, regrettably, Mitch McConnell understands better than most where this power comes from.
We are educated by the fantasy that our politicians are true public servants. Whether by their own honest intention or the simple limits of their job, their power is held in check as a public trust. In this view, political leaders are employed to serve their constituents, but they may be corrupted by power along the way to achieving their goals. In reality, though, power is the only real goal remaining in our evermore nihilistic national politics.
It’s become increasingly impossible to disentangle the role and function of government from the globalized capitalist economy’s unstoppable drive to expand through perpetual war and expropriation. And the imperial conquest of capital invariably concentrates power over the world’s wealth, resources influence, and decision-making in ever-smaller zones at the “tippy top” of the world order. Politics, as we have known it in the twenty-first century, is ultimately the preservation of this order.
The vestigial appendages of democracy that afford citizens some degree of power are the primary obstacle to official politics, not its foundation.
To that end, the vestigial appendages of democracy that afford citizens some degree of power (elections, civil suits, etc.) are the primary obstacle to official politics, not its foundation. American politics only makes sense if we understand that the elite cabals steering each of the two major parties inherently harbor a preternatural hatred for democracy as such. As Chris Hedges notes, these elites, “frightened by what the political scientist Samuel Huntington called an ‘excess of democracy’ that originated in the 1960s, methodically destroyed the democratic edifice. They locked the citizens out of government. And by doing so they made sure that power shifted into the hands of the enemies of the open society.” Whether through repeated attempts at voter suppression, inherently undemocratic party procedures, or further enabling corporate money to shape the political scene, Democrats and Republicans alike vie for total power while repeatedly demonstrating their mutual commitment to preserving a system in which that power remains beyond the reach of the masses.
If the violence of global capitalism and perpetual war are accepted as a given by both parties (and, oh yes, they are), official politics will continue to play out in the form of uncompromising elite wars over the flows of power that conspire to crush our individual and collective will. Regardless of their “liberal” or “conservative” iterations, the essential difference between our existing bipartisan strategies of governance boils down to either making this capitalist world order more palatable for citizens or ensuring that they lack the means—the power—to change it. In other words: It’s Mitch McConnell’s world; you (just barely) live in it.