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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 â€“ I stand for the proposition that each person deserves to be regarded and respected individually and not as a member of a group â€“ 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 â€œgoodâ€ 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 â€“ every aspect of oneâ€™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 â€“ Congress, President, Governor, etc. â€“ 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 â€œelectableâ€ 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.