Just the Right Amount of Contempt: Or, What Digital Nomads Taught Me About Politics

by Matt B. on October 18, 2015

Dear –

This past week, your uncle Dan was in town to run his annual conference for digital nomads and location-independent entrepreneurs. These folks make their living on the internet – finding ways to monetize small corners of the universe, and using their income to fund travel and exploration.

When Dan first started talking about this location-independent stuff a few years ago, his other buddies and I were skeptical – something about it seemed over-romanticized, a little bullshitty. What I didn’t see was that Dan was in a real bind: he was working jobs that didn’t mean anything to him, ate up all his time, and left him no real way to create an alternative future. He was hurting. And he needed a way to address that pain.

When he read The 4-Hour Workweek, something started to clarify itself. Just maybe he could solve his problem – by helping solve other people’s problems. He could build a business that addressed genuine needs, that offered people something they cared about.

Over the last c ouple years, he’s done it – selling stuff, podcasting, and establishing an organization to train, support, and encourage other entrepreneurs. I’ve met a bunch of these folks, and most of ‘em are somewhere along the path that Dan’s taken. They can’t breathe in a 9-to-5; the air’s too thin up there. So they’re sewing parachutes.

In other words, they don’t have time for BS. They’ve got a problem to solve – they’re suffocating. They need oxygen, and that oxygen is money. If their business idea works – if they can help solve someone else’s problem – then money arrives, and they can breathe. If it doesn’t, they keep choking.

All of this helps explain their default level of contempt for American politics and politicians. For most of the folks at this conference, politicians aren’t potential leaders. They’re businesspeople – but they’re running a very weird kind of business, one that operates without accountability or quality control.

I’ve been feeling my way toward a similar perspective for a while now, but from a slightly different angle.

Much of our democratic self-image is built on the premise that we’ve got decent choices, politician-wise – and that it’s our job as citizens to sort through ‘em. (Contemporary journalism often imagines itself as a kind of democratic midwife – “You Decide!” “Decision2016!”) There’s a credulity here – not necessarily toward individual politicians’ claims, but toward the more general idea that our democratic process produces results we can feel good about.

Pure comedy, according to the folks I hung with this week. Step back from the process, spend less time taking politicians’ self-seriousness seriously, and it becomes visible: our politicians are mostly clowns. They can say whatever they want, they can fail spectacularly, they can be one hundred percent wrong about stuff – and it doesn’t matter, because they don’t have much skin in the game.

Or, rather, they have a very different kind of skin in the game than they pretend to. Ask yourself: what’s the animating logic, the driving motivation behind Hillary Clinton’s campaign for president? It’s not to solve any particular set of problems. It’s to get herself elected president. Aside from Trump, Hillary is the most blatant about this – but it’s fundamentally the same with Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, and most of the rest of ‘em. They want to be president for the same reason that rappers want Benzes – because they’re insecure, and because being president seems cool.

And it is cool. To paint on the canvas of the world, to etch a piece of your vision into history – what a thing!

Except, of course, if you don’t have a vision. Except if your ambition is no bigger than getting yourself elected – if you have no other reason for being president. If that’s the case, then you’ll have gotten what you wanted on day one. But you’ll leave the rest of us feeling very, very cold.




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