03.29.09 Politics & Politicians
If you’re interested in playing this dirty game, there must be something wrong with you.
During decades of political activism, I have often been the defender of politics and politicians, cringing whenever I heard the classic populist rants about politicians as self-aggrandizing scoundrels.
Well, during my idealistic years, I didn’t know very many political figures personally, nor follow their behavior closely. Getting involved in “retail politics” in Maryland gave me a much more nuanced view – not only of the politicians I have worked with and followed, but of politics in general.
The conclusion, first — those populists have it right: most politicians are indeed self-aggrandizing scoundrels. Most politics is a dirty, duplicitous game. Much of the horrifically distasteful and hypocritical wheelings and dealings are necessary, representing the only way competing interests can form temporary coalitions to get anything done. Necessary, maybe. But it takes (in most cases) a somewhat depraved character to want to engage in it.
Look at the evidence, from Rod Blagojevich to Eliot Spitzer. If politicos are not in the game for their financial enrichment (Blago), they’re in it for the feeling of invincibility and personal power (Spitzer). Look at the truly despicable Ralph Nader, who spent much of his life pursuing the common good, only to flame out in a decade-long spasm of societally destructive ego gratification.
At one time, it would have been easy for me to toss aside these examples as exceptions. But no longer. All I need to see are the rags-to-riches stories like Ike Leggett (Montgomery County executive) who end up opposing small tax increases on millionaires to keep their top contributors happy. Or Maryland Secretary of Labor Tom Perez (newly appointed to the Obama administration), who found his ethnicity once it occurred to him to campaign for office and then, in order to keep moving up the ladder, sold out the poor (disproportionally Hispanic) by writing the governor’s justification for slot machine gambling.
Speaking of the governor, don’t think for a second that he is the most powerful man in Maryland. Rather, it is the right-wing, pseudo-Democrat, Senate President Mike Miller. Wanna know why it is impossible to raise liquor taxes in our state? Because that’s the Miller family business, that’s why! Wanna know why slots wouldn’t die? Because Miller held the entire legislative agenda hostage to them year after year until those opposed wore down and were willing to put the matter to a referendum so that other legislation might actually get considered in this state.
Even many politicians who vote the right way turn out to be unsavory when you get to know them. There are the local legislators who engage in scummy campaign practices or who put personal ambition in front of fulfilling commitments to their constituents. Because I care about policy outcomes I vote for these legislative good guys. But, do I really want to spend time with them? Do I really trust them – when push comes to shove – to put the common good instead of their own? Of course not. I just have to hope that that common good and their personal good stay aligned as much as possible.
To politics itself: I just watched Milk, the excellent film biography of pioneering gay politician, Harvey Milk, who was assassinated in 1978. A great man, in so many ways, but his promises to a rival to support contemptible legislation in order to win a vote and then his repeatedly breaking those pledges hardly constitute admirable moments.
By the same token, it makes my skin crawl to see some of the local politicos I know well, and whom I know loathe each other, doing the kissy-face thing with each other and praising each other publicly.
As I alluded to earlier, vote trading and pretending to respect those you don’t are clearly the grease that allows the political machine to produce any progress whatsoever. But would you want to engage in it or hang out with those who do? Don’t you wonder about the personality types that like it?
A couple of years ago, I flirted with running for public office. Among other reasons for stepping back from that idea, I realized that a significant motive for me was the idea of winning for winning’s sake, and of feeling important when I walked into a room. That ego craving is present in almost all politicians (and most performers, too – no surprise when someone jumps from stage to statehouse). Some are able to keep it sufficiently subjugated to higher purposes. I doubt most can.
(As for me, blogging is meeting my ego fancy, without causing any more damage than taking up your time, Dear Reader. And deciding I would never run for anything has freed me up to speak [what I see as] the truth without having to worry about how it might effect my future prospects for building coalitions and winning elections. What a relief!)
So, do I seek to get rid of politics and politicians? Of course not. I simply seek to keep my own idealism in check so that I stop being so bitterly disappointed. I also hope to encourage others to be highly skeptical of the system, without completely washing their hands of responsibility for it. After all, it is up to us voters to get the occasional truly good guys elected (and there are some of them) and keep a watchful eye on all the rest.
©2009 Keith Berner