The origin of the term “mediocrity” can be found in the two Latin words, “medi,” meaning “halfway’ and “ocrity,” meaning “mountain.” The concept is that of someone or something that is average or unexceptional in a hierarchical environment. Mediocrities do not rise to the level of excellence, but neither do they fall into the category of failure. The other element of the term implied in this definition is the behavioral property that mediocrities possess as a group: their decisions and actions tend to be restricted not by internal judgment, but by the least common denominator of social convention.
Putting these two ideas together, we can infer that a mediocrity is an individual who is so indistinguishable from others as to render him or her a nonentity, but at the same time, whose behavior ironically does not necessarily conform to generally accepted conventions of decency. In fact, in many sets of circumstances, it describes someone so devoid of ethical standards as to place the mediocrity’s actions or words significantly outside the normal range of appropriateness.
In the 2016 election cycle, the Republican party found itself in a dominant position, winning the presidency and majorities in both the Senate and the House of Representatives, to say nothing of governorships and state houses. But, despite this overwhelming vote of confidence bestowed upon these chosen officials by the American electorate, with only one exception, the new government has been unable to enact any laws embodying its populist promise to ‘’’make America great again.”
The one piece of legislation proposed by the President and passed by both legislative bodies was the so-called tax-reform bill, which was advertised to the public as a middle class tax cut but which turned out to be a massive boon to corporations and the top one-tenth of one percent of the income distribution at the expense of everyone else. The bill was passed in record time with no legislative hearings and no transparency as to its content. Moreover, the resulting ballooning of the country’s budget deficit has jeopardized funding for the long-standing middle class entitlement programs of Social Security and Medicare.
The relevance of these developments is that they have been engineered by mediocrities, individuals simultaneously lacking any personal mark of distinction themselves as individuals, and yet capable as a group of producing destructive outcomes for the very voters that elected them.
One may ask on what basis are we able to so characterize these people? And, while formulating a response, the first thing we notice is that the term actually describes two separate and distinct collections of features, both of which have a well-developed set of principles that guides their beliefs and behavior. The active role in this case is played by the President, an instigator of populist incivility, while the congressional Republican majority in the Senate and House of Representatives have traditionally advocated conservative values that call for limiting the role of Government in the society.
The problem Congressional Republicans now face is that the President is the leader of their party, but his policies, his personal style, and his behavior directly conflict with their long-held conservative principles. And while Congressional Republicans may play a passive role in the legislative process, reacting to the President’s actions, they face an ethical dilemma that does not ensnare Congressional Democrats for whom there is no conflict. between their voting decisions and their consciences.
is also true that the new government does not have a monopoly on mediocrity, and that there are plentiful examples of both types in everyday experience, although active mediocrity is more readily observable than passive mediocrity, which involves more of an internal struggle.
So, what are these characteristics that are endemic to active mediocrity? I believe there are four: first, A PROCLIVITY FOR BULLYING; in the President’s case, this aggressiveness and dearth of empathy has manifested itself against anyone he perceives to be weaker than he is, including his 2016 Democratic opponent, the Intelligence Community, the Justice Department, and selected members of his own party and cabinet. In addition, his communication style rests exclusively on ludicrously extreme claims: every one he supports is the most accomplished person in his or her fields, and all his actions and ideas are the most important in the history of the country. More generally, all bullies typically employ these tactics and display hostility as a defense mechanism toward individuals they perceive as more articulate or more successful than they are.
Second, DEPENDENCE ON A “BLAME THE VICTIM” STRATEGY; when the President is exposed in one of the many scandals that has marked his time in office, his response has been to lash out at the deliverer of the information, typically at members of the news media. And in general, a mediocrity confronted for bullying activities, will attack the exposer offensively rather than acknowledge any wrongdoing. The President himself makes his failure to ever issue an apology to anyone a point of personal pride.
Third, DEFENSIVENESS; the President is very sensitive to any criticism and interprets it as an indicator of disloyalty. And mediocrities generally are unable to acknowledge their condition or address it honestly. The root cause is a lack of self-esteem, and this deficiency then prevents them from seeking out trustworthy confidants, which itself leaves them vulnerable to the commission of avoidable mistakes.
And fourth, RELIANCE ON THE APPROVAL OF A RESPECTABLE ENABLER; For the President, his appearance of legitimacy hinges on someone close to him to play the role of “the adult in the room.” The problem is that most of the individuals who have performed this function have been revealed to have their own “feet of clay.” The President’s claim for respectability currently rests with that of his Secretary of Defense.
Moreover, within the group dynamics of any social setting inhabited by a mediocrity, there is always one other individual, who has acquired the respect of the larger group, that makes it a priority to overlook the mediocrity’s shortcomings and defend that person against all criticism, in the same way that the President’s base of supporters remain staunchly loyal to him and deaf to the outrageousness of his statements and actions.
The characteristics of passive mediocrity may, in some cases, overlap with those of active mediocrity, but there are two features whose description applies uniquely to the passive variety, as best illustrated by the legislative members in the Republican majority. I believe there are two of these features:
First, OBSEQIOUSNESS, the particular form of dishonesty practiced by passive mediocrities as a reflection of disrespect for an authority figure; It usually takes the form of a not-very-credible show of support for a particular idea expressed by an active mediocrity, motivated by a hope of personal gain for themselves. The most subtle application of obsequiousness occurs when the dishonest show of support lacks sincerity in a fairly transparent manner, permitting the passive mediocrity some small degree of dignity, especially when the expected gain turns out to be illusory.
Republican Senators and Congressmen practice obsequiousness when they praise the President’s leadership role in crafting his meanspirited agenda, and they barely acknowledge that in spite of their numerical advantage, most of it has not become law. More generally, passive mediocrities utilize obsequiousness to disguise an absence of self-confidence during interactions with an authority figure.
And, second, AN EXCESSIVE CAPACITY FOR COMPROMISE: As mentioned earlier, Republicans possess a well-developed ideology as to the proper way to conduct themselves in life. Both liberals and conservatives adhere to the conviction that the democratic form of government is the most effective way to organize the lives of its citizens. In fact, the United States has fought and won wars against authoritarian regimes whose leadership believed that the personal freedom of its citizens should be limited. The subtle philosophical difference between Democrats and Republicans revolves around the role of government in furthering the cause of democracy, with Republicans favoring less interference with market forces, and Democrats believing government should play a more proactive economic role.
Given this background, every citizen of the United States, and most especially those who have been elected to serve in higher office, should, regardless of their views on this philosophical issue, be united about the appropriate response to to the behavior of this President, who embodies the very spirit of authoritarianism (to say nothing of incompetence.) But, while 100% of the Democrats in the Senate and the House of Representatives have done so in both their voting records and in their spoken words, the number of Republican office-holders with the integrity to express their disapproval of this state of affairs has been very small, and, until recently, could be counted on the fingers of one hand. The question posed by this expression of passive mediocrity is “Why?”
All adult human beings are confronted at least once in their lives, regardless of their race, their religion, their sex, or any other defining property, with a conflict between the set of underlying beliefs that define who they are, and the immediate circumstances in which they find themselves. The resulting ethical dilemma, in which they feel themselves torn in opposite directions by these two overwhelming forces is considered by many to represent the defining moment of their lives.
In the case of Congressional Republicans, there would normally be no conflict, as supporting a Republican President and adhering to conservative principles would amount to the same thing. But this President was elected by the minority of voters who had become disillusioned with established politicians and responded positively to his political inexperience and his populist style under the Republican banner. So, what, then, does it mean to be a Republican? Is it this President’s party, or does it still represent the traditional conservative values (the ones the voting public rejected?)
Congressional Republicans have found different ways to answer this question. Some have explicitly compromised their principles and reluctantly supported the President, unable to withstand the assault of his bullying tactics, while others have succumbed to the Stockholm syndrome and embraced him enthusiastically. Still others think they have found a way to retain their integrity by speaking out against the President, but then simultaneously announcing their intention not to seek reelection in the coming term. This latter tactic may be safe, but it is also cowardly and costly. Nevertheless, it has become the method of choice for Congressional Republicans to resolve their conundrum. When the Republican Speaker of the House recently followed this path, he was the 40thRepublican office-holder to do so.
An example that illustrates an instance of passive mediocrity beyond that of current political personalities is the case of Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor of the province of Judea during the reign of the Emperor Tiberius in the 1st century. In his capacity as chief magistrate, it was Pilate’s responsibility to determine the innocence or guilt of Jesus of Nazareth on the charge of treason to the Roman Empire.
Pilate had a conflict of interest between his loyalty to Rome and his need to mollify the Sanhedrin Jewish Council, an important interest group in his jurisdiction. Based on his examination of the evidence and his questioning of the defendant, he found no credible evidence to support the charge, but the Sanhedrin leaders, fearful of Jesus’s challenge to their authority, called for his conviction and execution. Then, because of a tradition of freeing one convict on a feast day, Pilate washed his hands of the matter and offered to follow the wish of the large Jewish crowd that had gathered. Unfortunately, the crowd chose to commute the sentence of a thief and murderer rather than to show mercy to Jesus, and so, in spite of the unfavorable optics, Pilate ordered him to be crucified.
In the Broadway musical production Jesus Christ Superstar, composed by Andrew Lloyd Weber, the character of Pilate reviews his conflicted thoughts about these matters in a dream he recounts. Here are those lyrics:
“I dreamed I met a Galilean,
A most amazing man.
He had that look you very rarely find:
The haunting, hunted kind.
I asked him to say what had happened,
How it all began.
I asked again, he never said a word,
As if he hadn’t heard.
And next, the room was filled with wild and angry men.
They seemed to hate this man.
They fell on him, and then
Then I saw thousands of millions
Crying for this man.
And then I heard them mentioning my name,
And leaving me the blame.”
Pilate’s dream explains why this man, with the appearance of an important Roman Governor, was really just a passive mediocrity. He admits to being impressed with the manner and demeanor of Jesus and recognizes the disfavor Jesus has earned with the established Jewish authorities and the cost he has already paid for retaining his integrity.
From his own examination of the evidence, he knows Jesus is innocent of the trumped-up charges against him, but he is willing to put that belief aside to placate the desires of a powerful interest group. He hopes to satisfy them without disturbing his conscience by obsequiously taking advantage of the feast day exception, but the plan backfires when the crowd makes the wrong choice, and he must then execute an innocent man.
In the final verse of his dream, Pilate looks out into the future and sees that this person over whom he has made his failed compromise will one day be the originator of a whole new religion with billions of followers, inspired not by a rigid set of rules, but by the faith that God can see into each person’s heart and ascertain their actions’ degree of justice, so that no transgression would ever again be judged unconditionally unforgivable. And as an afterthought, Pilot also sees that he himself will be remembered, if at all, as the mediocrity that gave the order to crucify that remarkable person.