Even as a high school freshman, plans for the presidency surround me. If it’s not in jest: “Yeah, OK Mr. President” then it’s a solemn promise made by people my age as they chart the rest of their lives at the tender age of 14. In fact, even though the chances of being elected president are about 1 in 300,000,000, career aspirations to land behind the Resolute Desk are among the top ten for children.
Presidential plans among youth are so common that Ryan Murphy developed the Netflix series “The Politician” which follows the fictional Payton Hobart as he studies the histories of various presidents to calculate just which decisions will guarantee him being elected the leader of the free world. Payton predestines that he’ll be elected senior class president, make perfect grades, get into Harvard (his father and brother’s alma mater), graduate from Harvard, and launch a political career after that. Except, as the series shows, things don’t always happen as planned. Teenage transgressions plague Payton’s senior year.
The Payton Hobart character seems like a joke, except it’s a little too on the nose for Texas Senator Ted Cruz. In his high school yearbook, Cruz essentially outlined Payton Hobart’s rough plan, subbing Princeton for Harvard, and announced that he would be President of the United States some day. That goal guided Cruz to become one of the straightest — if not totally most annoying — presidential preparers we know of. He’s never done drugs, never acted untoward toward women (outside of taking away their right to control their own bodies). Never cheated. There’s the whole leaving-for-Cancun-as-his-
But times have changed. It’s now a fact in modern politics: a presidential candidate doesn’t have to be perfect to win, mostly because that concept of perfection is rooted in dated and oppressive expectations.
Barack Obama admitted to using drugs and got mediocre grades. Biden was accused of plagiarism. Even Donald Trump, a candidate accused of criminal sexual assault, won the presidency. After the Inside Edition recording revealed the Republican candidate’s confession to grabbing women’s genitals, the October Surprise is no longer surprising; we’ve come to expect that some major flaw will be exposed in each candidate’s past.
Initially, our willingness to overlook lapses in presidential candidates’ judgment seems like a good development; it appears we’re becoming a more forgiving society. But that’s only a partial explanation.
I think the public is slowly realizing that it’s probably not possible to be scandal-free anymore. Whether it’s bringing a parent’s otherwise legal cannabinoid candy to school, following parental advice to refuse to wear a mask, or growing one’s hair to raise money for charity, it’s easy to get into trouble without having bad intentions.
My generation is one most impacted by collective trauma; the pandemic made it worse and its effect on school has caused more behavior problems in students. Against a backdrop of zero tolerance school discipline policies, I expect more students to get into jams that aren’t indicative of their character; experts are already calling this phenomenon the “virtual school to prison pipeline.” I wonder if people my age can emerge from youth unblemished anymore.
Those blemishes are easy to find and last forever. With smartphones becoming more ubiquitous — now 85% of people have one, up from 35% in 2011 — and capable of recording every aspect of our lives, the foibles and faux pas that were buried years ago come alive in celluloid clarity and can be shared with millions of people before Joe Biden can say “Come on, man!” We won’t need to wait for some muckraker to expose us.
In short, it’s not the public’s empathy that has expanded; our knowledge of each other’s mistakes has. We know we vote in glass houses.
Besides the “flaws” identified in many candidates are rooted in supremacist — and sexist — expectations. The fact that Bill Clinton was scarred by abuse should have been understood differently. The reality that Obama’s mother subsisted on SNAP benefits shouldn’t have been a consideration. Kamala Harris embodies “representational politics” — whatever that means.
Of course, we shouldn’t elect unrepentant predators, but it’s not realistic to suppose that anyone with aspirations has avoided wrongdoing. This is why college admissions counselors advise applicants to avoid appearing perfect; it’s not a credible narrative. Nobody is Payton Hobart, not even Payton himself.
It’s not clear whether a third season of “The Politician” is in the making, but season two revealed that (spoiler alert) even though Payton doesn’t go to Harvard and develops a drinking problem at NYU, he’s still likely to become president. The reason for the rebound is that Payton has integrity, owns his mistakes, and is genuinely committed to improving the conditions under which his constituents live. His potential, not his past, qualifies him. That’s how it’s supposed to work.
If these conventional conditions had endured, young people like me would be cooked for chances at a viable presidential campaign.
And I’d hate for voters to assess me under such outmoded calculations.
About the Author:
Vincent Guerrero is a freshman at Ridgewood High School in Ridgewood, New Jersey.