What’s wrong with politicians?

Is there something fundamentally wrong with politicians? Do they start out life with a deficiency of ethics or does that come along as they rise in the ranks? Should voters simply not vote for anyone willing to run?

With public approval of politicians in general and Congress and the President specifically at such abysmally low levels, it appears that collectively we regard professional politicians as a suspect class, morally deficient and ethically challenged.

But are they really any different from the rest of us? Do they deserve the ridicule and contempt we heap upon them except, of course, when we vote for them? Is there something about those who choose to make politics their job that sets them apart from other citizens?

Being a committed individualist – I stand for the proposition that each person deserves to be regarded and respected individually and not as a member of a group – I am reluctant to even broach the questions asked at the top of this commentary. Yet the question gnaws at me as I read diatribe after diatribe against one politician after another.

Having participated in political matters recently at the local level I have met men and women of varying degrees of honesty, balance and sense of public service. For the most part, even those who initially I had suspected of being evil, corrupt or simply incompetent (the gold standard for which criteria seems to be the Bush administration) turned out to be more, well ordinarily human.

Yet there does seem to be at least one characteristic common to most if not all politicians, at least those who run for elective office, and that is they seek power. Most, if not all, say they seek that power in order to do some declared “good” for the rest of us, or at least a segment of the rest of us. There is a strong strain of altruism in the American political tradition going back to our founding. Politicians seemingly believe themselves when they claim this as the underlying reason for their candidacy.

The public apparently wants to believe in altruism and all political campaigns are shaped around this concept in one way or another. Soon after the election, the public soon reverts to suspecting less lofty goals of its elected officials and characteristics such as greed, corruption and ethical malfeasance are attributed to those holding office.

So one could ask whether the office corrupts the candidate or whether we are routinely and willingly hoodwinked every election, wanting to believe there is a candidate who holds our interests dear and will faithfully serve them while in office. The answer is probably some complex mixture of the two.

To be elected, a politician must go through the hazing that is now part of elections – every aspect of one’s past will be attacked, dissected and held up to view. That alone would scare off anyone who has any claim to normality at all. Few among us have even wanted to lead pure lives much less done so. We do not expect that kind of perfection of deed and thought from ourselves since we know it would render our lives devoid of the fun and serendipity most treasure.

So many of those who run for the higher offices – Congress, President, Governor, etc. – have started their political ambitions early in life, sometimes in high school. I cannot imagine having governed my life in such a way as to avoid anything controversial, anything contrary to conventional wisdom, morality or practices so that I would be “electable” in the future. Yet that is what someone who aims for a career in politics must do from the moment such a career path is selected.

As a part of this pathway, a politician in the making must learn how to speak in such a way to please as many listeners as possible while simultaneously sounding principled and resolute. The habit of thinking about what one says with a view to how others will hear it can be an admirable one. But when it results in learning to speak without saying anything, as is now so common in the world of politics, it becomes a means of hiding and feigning rather than discussing and considering. Politicians must master the art of deception and dissembling to a level most people would find frightening if practiced in their own life.

Therein may life the answer to the question I started with. What is wrong with politicians is likely what is wrong with you and I, it may be a disease that those who make a career of it have more acutely than us, but a familiar disease it is. Have we not all shaded a comment to a loved one, a boss or someone else to make ourselves look better? Has each of us not acted in some way to contravene our notions of law, ethics or morality? Are politicians simply better at it than we are?

Does this explain as well our hot and cold relationship with politicians? We recognize the pull toward altruism that expresses the highest of human aspirations and want very much that someone take that on and make it real in the world. Since we are too (take your pick) busy, weak, poor, rich, smart, dumb, lazy, or whatever other excuse you have, to act altruistically, we want to vote for someone to carry that burden.

On the other hand, we know that deep down within ourselves there are not only pulls toward altruism but deeply selfish motives and questionable ethics governing our acts, we use these same elected foils to scapegoat in them that which we find offensive in ourselves. Since politicians seem to amplify our own personal struggle by virtue of the larger stage upon which they act, we have the perfect morality play at our command.

So the final answer, deal or no deal, is that there is much wrong with politicians, but none of it is so foreign to ourselves that it is not endemic to being human. What is wrong with politicians is that we expect them to be different from the rest of us and they keep being the same, with amplification.

This is not, however, a reason to give politicians a free pass or to ignore their transgressions. Rather it is a call for each of us to simultaneously expct more from our politicians and more from ouselves . It is the expectation that each of us conform at the minimum to our own standards and also to the higher aspirations of humans that helps bring those into actuality. If we expect politicians to be knaves liars and cheats what we get is what we now have.

Expect better and vote your expectations.

Comments

  1. adamrussell

    When I was young I thought that all politicians were alike and the parties the same. With the years Ive come to realize thats not exactly so. While both parties do comprise of fallible human beings, they are not the same. Each party has developed its own ‘culture’. One side is (imo) overly-idealistic, and the other side is a culture of corruption. I encourage you to observe the two parties and decide for yourself if my analysis is correct, and which is the which.

  2. Joe Sedlak

    Joe Sedlak

    The majority of national politicians gradually suffer a deteriorating mental illness. Some call it Potomac Fever. I call it a deterioration of the backbone and brain. No one plans to get the disease – but it happens gradually and can be fatal to the individual and the country.

    Symptoms are: increasing inability to speak in language that people can understand, inability to accept different cultures and peoples, avoidance of contact with constituents, secret meetings and deals with corporate lobbyists and taking small gifts from them (it starts with lunch and ends with golf trips in Scotland), and gradual loss of logical thinking. The two sad “debates” of 2008 presidential candidates revealed that the disease was pretty widespread among the participants.

    Taken separately these symptoms can be treated, but taken all together – disaster! That’s what’s wrong with politicians.

    Some come to Washington with altruistic motives,others come for prestige and power, others come because they want to make money and get the perks that the public doesn’t even know about, others come for religious purposes. Regardless of the motive it doesn’t take long before a neo-politician begins to think that he knows better than folks outside the beltline what is best for them and for the nation. This could go on and on.

    I should know, I lived and worked in the Washington area for more than twenty years, worked for a US senator,was chief executive of several nonprofit organizations and lobbied for various social causes.

    I had friends who helped me return to normal – that’s when I moved out of the area. Whew, that was a real close call!

  3. Sandy Price

    I have been a Republican since 1953 when I reached the age of 21. It was easy to choose a party as they were very different at that time. Both were focused on winning the war and celebrated the victory as Americans.

    I saw a terrible change in 1989 when President Bush 41 came up with a new platform that would make America part of the new world order. In 1992 he changed even that into an American Empire going after all nations who were not Democracies. There was no loud disapproval from the GOP until Perot presented his ideals for America. They were much closer to the GOP that I had understood, and after meeting with him in Santa Barbara our district joined with other state-wide districts and we began our campaign.

    During the Clinton years, I began looking more deeply into the GOP and found the religious right running the show. I joined GOPAC (Gingrich’s) group and found that they too wanted the prohibitions that Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell had added to the Platform. To me, that was the most dangerous change any political party could make.

    Now in the election of 2008, we are faced with the most corrupt Republican Party ever since it’s inception. Ron Paul spent his years in the Congress working for the same limited government and individual rights that spoke to and for me.

    In 1999 Ron Paul spoke on the subject of abortions and other social issues and wanted them out from under the authority of the federal government.

    I am reading at this time that he wants to repeal Roe v Wade. Legally the only way to do this is through an Amendment to the Constitution and as far as I’m concerned that would open the Constitution to all the prohibitions wanted by the religious right.

    The only secure vote I can make in November 2008 is for a Democrat.

    It is imperative that the voters restore trust in the White House. I’m still searching for a leader who will stop this nonsense of trying to make America into a Christian world leader. The American people are speaking out against this movement and the percentage of Bush approvals can be seen all over America. Even the very religious Utah is showing signs of being disgusted with Bush’s lies and manipulations.

    I want equal freedoms for all Americans. This will include equal rights/marriages for same sex couples. I want equal rights for women giving them the choice of how many children they can raise. I want stem cell research (embryonic even) so that when our soldiers return home, every possible cure will be at their disposal. I want equal rights for all terminally ill Americans who feel they have had enough agony and they want to pull their own plug when the time comes.

    Can any Republican allow this amount of individual freedoms at this time? No! They will always bow to the religious right and make people pay for what many Christians believe are self-inflicted sins.

    Every other point that Ron Paul stands for would make him the ideal candidate but he is limited by his own religious convictions.

    Before jumping into the fiscal conservative agenda of Ron Paul, we are going to have to clean up all the issues that Bush managed to destroy.

    We need to reinstate the separation of church and state before we even start discussing the prohibitions that are straight from the Christian Coalition.

    I fear my days as a Republican are gone forever. But before I venture into the Democratic Party I want to know how they plan to keep those freedoms clear from the Federal Government. I want to know, in detail, if socialized medicine is in their agenda as well as a redistribution of wealth.

    The two parties are now in a rage war with insults and anger at an all time high. The problem is there is no clear and distinct agenda from either side that would draw in any voters, new or old.

    I remember this being the case in 1992 when suddenly a man showed up with his charts and his ideals and we saw what had been missing in Bush 41. We also saw no promise from the Democrats with their Bubba from Arkansas wanting to be President.

    Anyone interested in restoring respect back into the White House should be able to analyze the mess that Bush/Clinton/Bush have made in their bad judgments.

    Those men who debated as Republicans have no clue what a Republican is. They are simply speaking out against the actions of Bush 43. But none of them has the courage to stand up for what they believe is right. One man presented the correct answers to the questions but does he have the ability to allow the freedoms of choice that may contradict the bible? Would he, as a Christian Doctor allow a terminally ill American to pull their own plug? Would he allow our doctors to prescribe the magic pill that would remove the agony they have to live with? Would he allow two men/two women to marry legally?

    These are critical decisions that any man/woman who is elected to the White House has to make. I do not want another man like Bush to ever have the authority to decided my own personal and private choices. The bible should be put away while our nation is fighting for freedoms from other religions as well as our own.

    In my world, 2008 will decide whether we want socialism or freedom. It will decide whether we want the government to direct our personal lives. It is terrible that we have allowed the GOP to get into this position and watch them fail to sell it.

    When this happens we will see the religious right step down or continue their assault on our individual freedoms. They never gave up in Europe and the wars continue between the Catholics and Protestants. I’ve had enough of this nonsense and in viewing the wars in the Middle East, I do not think we should ever get involved in any religious war. America does not have the stability to start one here.

  4. Steve Horn

    What’s wrong with politicians? From birth we’re informed that politics is a “dirty business” – that to win you need to cheat – so whom do you expect to step into the competition?

    We qualify our praise for politicans – “JFK was a great man except for ….”, “Clinton was a good leader except for …..”, “Bush would be a decent leader if he had ethics and balls” – those sorts of things – it’s rare that you don’t hear qualification with praise for a politician.

    So again – who do you expect to dive into a “dirty business”? I expect someone who’s going to lie, cheat, steal and attempt to screw me every chance they get. I’ve yet to be disappointed. (but I really wish someone would disappoint me ….).

    Peace

    Steve

  5. Razor

    Sandy, you confuse me. You speak of Ross Perot as the man we should have elected back when. He had ideas that were different. But then when it comes to Ron Paul, first you say you’ll check him out, then after Doug offers his opinion you say Paul is no good based on that, and now you say that you supported him for years. You say the media will destroy him because he has no one in the senate or house for support.

    Maybe I missed something in social studies class but I think there was a time when voters chose the candidate that promised reform and gave him the support he needed. If the senate or congress can’t work with a president who follows his oath and promises to the voters for a better nation, then they are the ones who will be looking for work. My point in all this is simple. Out of all the political players there is one who is different in the sense of truth and honor in political service. One that will work for the people and for the nations best interest. The rest are unmistakebly liars, crooks, cheaters, and never will have the citizens best interests as a priority. So it only seems reasonable to support this one man strongly if in fact we want to salvage this country. So what if he is not accepted by the scum bag elitists Carl mentions, if the majority of americans ban together in support of Ron Paul it won’t matter. This is still America and the people can still overcome treachery if they just rally and stand firm. No other candidate will change a dam thing and this nation will stay the course, just like Bush and his sick war. Not one of them is worth making the trip to vote. This man Ron Paul is our hope and if he can get all the people who want a better country behind him, he can win and we the people will win. Would you vote for more of the same government that we now have? Paul is the only one offering something different. And he is not known for lying or decieving anyone. Can’t say that for any of the others. This nation must change radically away from police state tactics and direction. Who is gonna do that besides Ron Paul?