Suppose that you are charged with selling a single food item to at least a hundred million people in a highly diverse society. You can pick whatever item you wish, but you can pick only one. If you fall short of getting at least 100,000,000 people to voluntarily choose your item over a rival item that will be offered by a competitor, you lose. (Your competitor is playing by the same rules that you are playing by.)
Being highly competitive, you hate losing. So you carefully go about selecting which item to choose.
What kind of item do you think you’ll finally select as the one food item to appeal (over your rival’s offering) to at least 100,000,000 people? Sashimi, perhaps? Nope. Far too exotic. Only a small fraction of people will choose sashimi over whatever food your rival offers. How about a luscious, authentically cajun, spicy plate of red beans’n’rice? No again, and for the same reason. Lamb chops? Too risky, what with all the vegans out there, as well as those people for whom lamb is itself much less preferred than beef or pork.
You go down a long list. Eventually, you settle upon something that is unquestionably bland and common and uninspiring – something like a plain hamburger, or perhaps a dish of mild meatloaf with mashed potatoes topped only with butter. Anything more exotic than such offerings will, while being much preferred by a few million of the people whose patronage you’re trying to win, will be rejected by a majority of the people. Your rival, of course, faces the same incentives.
No one above the age of seven who thinks about this matter for more than a few minutes would deny the truth of the above analysis. So why do so many adults – including media pundits and academic professors – suppose that the results of a national election in a large country, such as the United States, will produce outcomes that are fundamentally different? Why do so many seemingly intelligent people presume, or at least hope, that a genuinely interesting and intellectually substantive candidate can win at least the tens of millions of votes necessary to become the next resident of the public-housing project at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.?
It’s intriguing that the people who most self-righteously criticize the likes of McDonald’s, Anheuser-Busch, pop rock, and builders of ‘cookie-cutter’ houses for being bland and failing to experiment with the Bold and the Edgy – those who condemn conformity, sneer at the crowds in Wal-Mart, and trumpet their devotion to diversity – are especially likely to be among those who glorify politics and to find in democratic elections the possibility of transcendence and of discovering and empowering the bold, the different, and the courageous trend-bucking leader.
No one should be surprised that candidates for the U.S. presidency transact mostly in platitudes and are forever performing deeds on the campaign trail that any self-respecting person with independent judgment and a genuine sense and appreciation of his or her uniqueness would never in a million years dream of doing. And the closer a candidate gets to the political promised land, the more intense becomes the pressure for him or her to be the political equivalent of a Bud Lite.