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Do Politicians Get a Bad Rap? Or Have They Earned It?
If I say “politician”, what is the first adjective you think of?
“Corrupt” is my guess. Corrupt politician. The two words come tripping off the tongue as though they are linked.
I was introduced to my new reputation early in my first race for the Illinois legislature. As I campaigned in front of a supermarket most people were polite even when they refused my handout. But one man barked at me, “You are all a bunch of crooks.”
Several years ago, when I was running for the County Board here in Buffalo County one of my neighbors who I hadn’t met before invited me in to talk. He said he would vote for me since I was new, not an incumbent, and probably not yet corrupt, even though he expected I would be in a couple of years. (I didn’t think it necessary to tell him I had once been an Illinois state legislator.)
General skepticism directed at politicians has long been with us. Among the ancients, Aesop noted, “We hang the petty thieves and appoint the great ones to public office.” Robin Hood is the medieval precursor of all the heroes we love for coming to the aid of those “despoiled by a great baron or a rich abbot or a powerful esquire.”
Webster’s second definition of politician, “a person primarily interested in political offices from selfish or other narrow interests,” resonates far more than the first, “a person experienced in the art or science of government.”
My father often wondered out loud whether I could be an effective politician without becoming corrupted. He was never very specific about the nature of the corruption, and we never talked about the choices I made, but his question still intrigues, because there is no answer that isn’t ambiguous.
Near the end of one campaign, I was on a downtown sidewalk asking for votes. A young man in his early twenties walked toward me. I reached out my hand. “Will you give me your vote?” I asked. Without hesitating he replied, “What are you going to do for me?”
Those fourteen words, “Will you give me your vote?” … “What are you going to do for me?” capture the essentials of democratic politics. Politics is a transaction, a trade, at times a purchase or an auction. The deal is power for reward, election for favor.
As my then-seven-year-old son told me one day as I was driving him home from school, “Dad, you should be president.” “Why?” I asked, naively thinking he was impressed with my abilities. His motive was more personal. “Because I could tell you what I want, and you could pass a law.”
The fundamental transaction underlying democracy is inherently corrupting.
Faced with the question, “What are you going to do for me?” the candidate instinctively begins to calculate, “How far do I have to go to get this vote?” As the issues become more important, the groups involved more influential, and the donations larger, the temptation to do the appropriate calculation increases.
Interest groups are not shy. The large banks in Illinois were quite clear. “We support only those legislators who support branch banking.” When Kathleen in her first term voted against the trail lawyers on only one of their many issues, they refused to support her re-election. One previous donor wrote cryptically, “Can no longer help. Very disappointed in Vinehout.” Wisconsin Progress, an organization that supports progressives, has said to be endorsed a candidate “must score 100 percent” on their questionnaire.
In most cases support and contributions come because voter or interest group and candidate genuinely think alike. They are on the same team and are helping each other, one by running, the other by volunteering and donating.
The transaction creeps close to the near occasion of sin, however, when a person or group with a specific interest makes their support contingent on answers to their questions. Everyone is entitled to know what candidates think about a wide range of issues. There is an uncomfortableness, however, about answering detailed questionnaires from economic and ideological groups that is not present at neighborhood gatherings.
But political power has left the neighborhood and become centralized. Candidates are recruited, strategies planned, and campaigns directed mostly by state and national committees, interest groups and PACs. The messages that persuade are created somewhere else, by consultants who live somewhere else, run by organizers recruited from somewhere else, and paid for by money that comes from somewhere else.
As power moved to the center, the bond that connects the officeholder to community loosened. Before even thinking about making the rounds to look for local support, prospective candidates travel to the state capital or Washington to meet with the state or national campaign committees, interest groups, and wealthy individuals to look for support and funds. Those first ties bind.
More so than previously, the conflicts between community and central interests focus on the politician who is faced with the question long debated in every democracy. How shall I decide?
Should I vote for what I believe is best? Should I vote what constituents want? What my contributors want? Knowing what is “best” can be difficult. Constituents don’t agree. The desires of contributors, on the other hand, are clear.
Regardless of the motivation, people assume that it is the money that talks. The most common explanation by progressives in her district for why Kathleen voted against a statewide smoking ban was that she had “sold out” to the “powerful” Tavern League.
Both parties contribute to distrust by portraying the other as the pawn of big-money interests. Democrats tell their supporters about the “sleazy money from the special interest billionaires like the Koch brothers … that half-a-million campaign of lies from … Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce”. Republicans hear from their leaders about the “notorious cartel of Madison Liberals, Washington Democrats, and East and West Coast Big Government interests” that controls the Democrats. Nobody mentions their own big funders. When asked, the response is we have to play the game the way it is. We can’t disarm ourselves.
Voters are looking for authenticity. We see it in the words they use to describe those they see as “not your usual” politician. “Speaks from the heart”, “Has answers,” “Not just pretty words filled with warm air”, “Talks like I do”, “Not just pandering”, “Direct”, “The real deal”.
The message those words send is the “usual” politician avoids direct answers, doesn’t say what they mean, or mean what they say. We react with skepticism to “messaging”, the new acceptable word for propaganda. The messaging that consultants teach to every new candidate. What poll tested words to use. How to avoid controversial issues. How to “pivot” to your message. How to stay on message.
Messaging at its best is the art of conveying ideas effectively, but it quickly slides into giving words new meanings with the intent to deceive and persuade falsely. The result of widespread propaganda has always been widespread skepticism rather than widespread belief.
Trust and bringing politics back to the local are connected.
I was playing tennis one day in Eau Claire with three others about my age, none of whom knew my life away from the courts, when between games, they began talking about politicians in the usual pejorative way.
“Easy,” I said. “Be careful what you say. I’m a politician.” One looked at me and asked, “What do you do?” “I’m on the Buffalo County Board of Supervisors,” I replied. “Hell,” he said without a pause, “you’re not a politician, you’re a public servant.”
Bringing political power back to the local will not be easy. Not only does it run counter to all of the centralizing forces that drive the economy, our culture and the media, no one who has power is going to relinquish it voluntarily.
While working to increase local political power, let us not add to the prevailing mistrust by name calling and personal attacks on the character and motivation of those we disagree with. Mistrust that endangers everything we want to accomplish.
Argue strenuously for who and what we support, and against who and what we oppose. Focus on actions and issues and why they matter. We will be more effective. Attacks don’t change minds. They may motivate our partisans, but are dismissed as just politics by opponents. Everyone else tunes out.
History and the experience of other nations tell us that democracy doesn’t long survive where there is widespread mistrust in democratic government and its political leaders. Voters turn to authoritarians to fix things.