The Politics of DNA

“”Luck,” E.B. White once said, “is not something you can mention in the presence of self-made men.” They worked hard, no doubt, to get where they are. But they also benefited enormously from good fortune, not just in life but in life’s building blocks. A fortunate combination of thousands of slight genetic differences boosted their intelligence, motivation, openness to experience, task perseverance, executive function, and interpersonal skills.

“Like being born to a rich or poor family, being born with a certain set of genetic variants is the outcome of a lottery of birth,” the behavioral geneticist Kathryn Paige Harden argues in The Genetic Lottery. “And, like social class, the outcome of the genetic lottery is a systemic force that matters for who gets more, and who gets less, of nearly everything we care about in society.””

The Tragic Mediocrity of the U.S. Congress

“As an informal poll, I recently asked a bunch of people I thought would have well-informed views a question: What percentage of members of Congress would you say qualify as impressive?

What do you mean by impressive?

I let people define it however they wished. Some standard attributes might include people of uncommon intelligence, of either an academic or practical sort. Outsized achievements prior to coming to Congress certainly qualify, as would a clear record of effectiveness within the institution. Some people are impressive by virtue of an especially capacious character. Under any definition, we are talking about people who leave a wake behind them as they navigate life’s personal and professional channels.

There was nothing scientific about this poll. It included a dozen or so current or former members of Congress, or longtime operatives, or journalists who have covered Capitol Hill. For what it’s worth, everyone I interviewed met my own definition of impressive.

The results were striking. The first-blush answers ranged from a low estimate of one percent (!), to a high estimate of 55 percent (!!) of lawmakers who merit the adjective impressive. On further discussion, though, a fairly solid consensus emerged that about 20 percent of Congress is occupied by people who qualify.

Which leaves 80 percent who fall a bit short, or a lot short, of the Athenian ideal of the enlightened citizen servant.”

“A senator observed that ambition and discipline count for a lot, but the greatest factor of why one politician makes it to the Senate while others remain on city council is luck: “The bottom 80 percent of this place is no different than the bottom 80 percent of any typical city council.””

“former congressman John Boehner wrote of the 2010 elections that vaulted him to the speakership: “You could be a total moron and get elected just by having an R next to your name—and that year, by the way, we did pick up a fair number in that category.””