“We don’t have politicians anymore, today we just have ciphers,” Pat Caddell lamented in a big-think piece on what ails America’s political parties. I helped him write that in 2012.

What he meant by “cipher” was a zero, an interchangeable digit, like a rapper or a poet in a slam, the one who steps into the circle for a moment to recite a few lines before the next turn. By the time he died 18 months ago, the truth of his prophesy already was revealed.

Political director to one-term President Jimmy Carter, Pat became an outlier in his later years because nobody in the Democratic Party was particularly interested in what he had to say about a disenfranchised electorate.

But his diatribes on Fox News caught the attention of 2016 presidential candidate Donald Trump, who went on to speak to working class Democrats far more effectively than their own party’s nominee that year, arguably cinching his own (also one-term) presidency.

While President Biden now gives speeches in front of backdrops that read “Blue Collar Jobs,” it remains to be seen whether this is simply window-dressing or a concentrated effort to regain the support of a neglected base.

But in describing today’s politicians as mere “ciphers,” Caddell hit on a truth that has become clearer still in the present day. Consider the following examples:

Marjorie Taylor Greene, Matt Gaetz, Jim Jordan, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib. Whether or right or left, those politicians who attract the most media attention today are not states-people in the making, but rather demonic caricatures more resembling mischievous extras in a Chinese opera.

Or, like rappers and beat poets, they are fast-talkers who flash across our consciousness saying things more balanced, authentic and sober people won’t say. This is not to diss slam poets, but simply to suggest they may lack sustained attention necessary to legislate and govern.

Under fire for her tone-deaf tweet on the eve of Memorial Day with a photo of herself urging Americans to “enjoy the long weekend,” Vice President Kamala Harris was quick to rebound a few days later by appearing on stage in a rainbow-colored jacket to mark the onset of Pride Month.

In public relations, one talks about how helpful it can be to “change the lighting” when trouble knocks. In the case of Harris, it was simply a question of pivoting to a more supportive audience with some good, old-fashioned virtue-signaling.

There is a temptation to blame today’s politicians for being shallow, two-dimensional ciphers, but that simply lets us off the hook. In the supply and demand-driven marketplace of a modern democracy, we tend to get what we deserve. With a fractured media landscape, politicians today often speak only to their narrow support bases because it is the path of least resistance.

When Republicans try and go back to our roots, we look to Reagan as we once did to Eisenhower. Seventy years ago, our standard-bearer was a victorious general who presided over a devastated Europe, while 40 years ago it was an appealing movie actor.

Perhaps Reagan’s success with a strong economy and muscular defense of democracy lulled us into our modern day iconography.

Democrats face their own identity crisis, which Biden sought to address last month in his visit to Plains, Georgia, for that odd photo-op with Jimmy Carter, perhaps the party’s last authentically moral standard-bearer.

But somehow the shaky White House communications teams goofed that, too, producing instead a bizarre image where the Bidens looked like giants while the Carters looked like dwarfs. So infected we’ve become by cipher-mania we no longer recognize the genuine article when we see it.

In the olden days, the expression “preaching to the choir” was a bit of a criticism, suggesting one was being too narrow and uncourageous. Nowadays, it means you’re “on message.”

If we are ever to become interested in again electing people to public office who are more than mere ciphers, it is we who must demand it. Bemoaning our crummy choices obscures our own role in all this.

When push comes to shove, would we rather be entertained, or led?

Sam Patten is a recovering political consultant who was raised in Knox County and worked for Maine’s last three Republican senators.