Politicians. The word itself is often accompanied by a sneer. Few words in American conversation can bring out such near-unanimous agreement, and invariably negative. Just today I saw a meme on Facebook saying we would be better off if we paid politicians less and teachers more.
Mark Twain, while frequently misquoted about politics, DID write that “it could probably be shown by facts and figures that there is no distinctly native criminal class except Congress.” (Just in case you wondered, he did NOT compare politicians to diapers.)
More than once I have gotten a flier from someone running for office containing the statement that they are “not a politician,” whatever that means. American politicians have been making that claim since the 19th century.
Truth be told, denouncing politicians does more harm than good. For one thing, it doesn’t really have much common sense to it. Politicians are not a separate species. They are human beings, just like the rest of us. People enter politics for a wide variety of motives, sometimes good, sometimes bad, sometimes both. Plenty of crooks populate American politics (more of this below). However, there are crooks in every walk of life. I can’t speak for your trade or profession, but I’ve been active in my church and worked for years at universities, and I have found crooks in both places. If you work in an area of life where there is nothing but total honesty, I would sure love to hear about it.
But what harm does it do? If we simply lump all “politicians” together, we are not paying attention to things that really do matter. For example, politicians like Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders have vastly different opinions on national health insurance. Love them or hate them, what’s important here is that depending which one was in office, the results for health care would be vastly different; and they have both stuck to their promises on this issue. But there’s a bigger reason why “lumping together” is bad. Most people don’t bother to vote in primaries. But, it’s in primaries that you have the most choice. It’s there that all sorts of people, including brand new politicians, try to get involved; sometimes voting in primaries is really more important.
By denouncing politicians as a class, we fail to distinguish between some obviously different types of politicians. First, you do have politicians who tell the truth, but unless they have a very forgiving constituency, they don’t last long. We like to be told what we already believe. Most people will vote for politicians who tell them what they want to hear. I’m certainly not immune to that. Trouble is, that doesn’t exactly encourage candidates who give honest opinions.
I remember once having a brief on-air conversation with my friend Austin Rhodes about the following incident. John McCain had a rally in South Carolina, and Rhodes reported that some of the enthusiasm had gone out of the rally because replied, “No,” when someone in the crowd asked if he thought homosexuality was a sin. You do sometimes get the honest answer, but the giver of the answer probably won’t be around long.
Then you get politicians who find a large constituency that will support them because they boil everything down to a few popular slogans. Because those politicians are popular with that constituencies, their followers stop calling them politicians and will protect them from difficult outsider questions. This type of politician usually whips up the most media hate because the media is the most likely entity to ask difficult questions.
The most common type of politician is the one who tends to be evasive or unclear when asked a question. But the reason so many are evasive, is that in politics, you have to be so careful about what you say – especially in an age of sound bites. We want clear and simple answers, but our preferred answers are not identical with what our neighbors want, so a desire for survival makes many politicians careful, or prone to fall back on slogans or canned answers. And of course, clear and simple answers are usually elusive. And again, lumping all the above together in a single category of “politicians” makes little sense.
So why do we do it? Well, first of all, let’s not beat around the bush; a lot of questionable people do wind up in politics. Success in politics often means manipulating people to do your bidding. Sociopaths are the most skilled manipulators.
But even manipulators who do not suffer from that particular malady are (surprise!) economical with the truth, and this may be one reason why so many politicians get caught in scandals. But most don’t. And quite a few shady politicians get reelected even after their shadiness becomes public knowledge. But throwing all politicians in the “crooks” bag is simply lazy. It fails to distinguish between different behaviors, and thereby also avoids the need to see what they really stand for.
So can we do anything?
The short and simple answer: start to take politics seriously.
How do we do that?
If there is anything that we can agree on across ideological lines, it is that citizenship as a concept has declined precipitously. How often do we do things just because being citizens calls for it? Not as much, or as common, as it was even a half century ago. Citizenship needs to become an issue in and of itself, and it should be taught in civics classes in every school. But it should also be taught at home. Being a citizen earns you rights, but it also comes with obligations.
And we need to start talking about politics amongst ourselves – again, seriously, abandoning the easy ways out, whether following a popular politician or a few slogans, or simply saying, “They’re all just a bunch of politicians.”
Remember – none of those people elect themselves.