I try to take American politics seriously, I really do. Serious issues are at stake, after all. But sometimes, entirely too often in fact, the realities of American political discourse make taking it seriously awfully hard. Considering the seriousness of what’s at stake, this may be what hearing Beethoven’s Ninth performed on the harmonica would be like.

A while back, Jeb Bush, speaking to a group in San Francisco, promised that if he runs for president next year, he will offer the country “adult conversations” regarding the problems it faces. Whether he does that or not is, for the moment, beside the point. The point now is that Bush got headlines for saying something that should be taken for granted of candidates for high office. But apparently it’s news simply to say you’ll speak to the American people as if they were grownups.

Recently I was asked to give a talk on sobriety. The details needn’t detain us here, although this wasn’t a temperance lecture or even particularly about the use of alcohol (although that was part of it). It was about sobriety in the sense of moderation, self-control, and — especially — seriousness. 

As one example of an area where there’s a sobriety deficit, I cited politics. Here, roughly, is what I said:

Very often, I’m afraid, you find this lack of sobriety and seriousness in political campaigns. It’s not just that they’ve become ridiculously expensive, although that’s part of the problem, but that they also are in some fundamental way frivolous and unserious. 

For instance, and without drawing partisan political conclusions, I have the impression that Mitt Romney and Barack Obama are both essentially serious men. That being so, my heart went out to them both during the presidential campaign of 2012 in view of all the stupid, fatuous things they were required, or felt required, to say and do. I could say the same of many other candidates for office these days.

Of course, maybe it’s always been that way. Maybe the level of political discourse in America has always been embarrassingly low. Still, I have the impression that lately it’s gotten worse.

It didn’t happen all at once, but the turning point in this process may have been the time Bill Clinton was asked — and answered — a question about his underwear. Somehow I can’t imagine George Washington or Abraham Lincoln discussing his underwear in public. There are several problems with this, and the conspicuous lack of sobriety isn’t the least of them.

I’m not suggesting that politicians must be dull, but I am suggesting that when they talk about serious matters, they do so in a serious way. If they can combine seriousness with wit, all the better. But what we generally get instead are image-mongering, sound bites, and slogans — all of them carefully pretested in the same way that manufacturers of everything from breakfast cereal to automobiles test out the advertising for new products and new models. 

What I’d like especially to see is — to borrow Jeb Bush’s phrase — adult conversations regarding the moral dimension of public issues. Granted, the risk in debating morality is a lapse into moralism that ignores the real moral complexity of many policy issues. But the risk of not debating right and wrong is the encouragement thus given to a debased pragmatism that amounts to saying, “Do what you need to do in order to get the results you want.” Which is, I fear, about where we are now — and it’s not a good place to be.