Given this growing cultural fixation on failure, it was probably inevitable that politicians would begin clambering aboard the pro-failure bandwagon. “I failed. Big time” is how the disgraced former Governor Eliot Spitzer put it in an ad promoting his candidacy for New York City comptroller in this November’s election, arguing that his 2008 prostitution scandal was not entirely a bad thing. “You go through that pain,” Spitzer said in a July television interview, “you change”—the implication being that the change must have been for the better. Mortification, Spitzer has suggested, can make a person more “empathetic.” Leaving aside the question of whether empathy is a quality one wants in a comptroller, it does seem that in politics, failure, done right, may have recently turned a corner. Far from being a liability, failure—and humble emergence from failure as sadder, wiser, etc.—has become something to tout.
This idea is not entirely new. As the historian Robert Dallek pointed out to me, overcoming failure—bankruptcy, addiction, dissolution, defeat—is part of the quintessential American success story. Failure narratives resonate with all sorts of deeply held cultural tenets, from Christianity’s focus on forgiveness and rebirth to the frontier mentality’s emphasis on prevailing over obstacles both external and internal, including our own imperfect selves. Still, some eras seem to crave stories of redemption more than others. It seems no accident that after a punishing half decade in which failure descended upon millions in the forms of foreclosure, job loss, factory shutdowns, workplace realignment, growing economic inequality, and dwindling options, we delight in hearing that NASA, according to Dweck, prefers to hire aspiring astronauts who have failed and bounced back, rather than those who have enjoyed easy successes.