A mentor of mine once explained to me his theory of what kinds of people get involved in politics in Our Great American Democracy. His opinion was that there were three types of personalities who got involved in politics. The first is perhaps the most admirable. That would be the person who feels strongly about a particular cause or issue such as Civil Rights, War and Peace, the Environment, Education, etc. The second is the person who has a desire to serve the people and because he or she feels that she has some ability and talent which could best be shared through governmental service he seeks elective or appointive office. The third is typified by the person who gets involved in politics for social and/or psychological reasons. This person has difficulty finding a social circle which will accept him or her. He or she also has trouble getting any kind of personal attention or recognition from anyone at work, at home, or in his community.
Politicians will pay attention to anyone who can vote, is willing to work for them for little or no financial remuneration and/or contributes dollars to them or their campaign. In addition with the advent of the 24/7 news cycle accompanied by the emergence of the social media, cheap websites, and thrill-seeking self-proclaimed Bloggers and “Investigative Reporters, any kind of attention-seeking words and/or behavior will be focused on in one or more of these quarters. Often this limited exposure will expand exponentially to national or even international platforms and forums. The extent and intensity of this expansion will usually vary directly with how dramatic and controversial, even bizarre the words or behavior being exhibited are.
Unfortunately in this atmosphere, the third type of personality, i.e. the one who gets involved in politics for social and/or psychological reasons often blends in with the first two and then takes over their body and perhaps their soul. This happens more often than not because of the need of those attention seeking persons for the kind of instant gratification which comes with the type of recognition provided by politics more readily and easily than any other adult vocation. This kind of unexpected, but sought after social and psychological validation is especially gratifying to individuals who never expected to receive any recognition or attention nor to obtain any elective or appointed office in their lifetime. They very easily forget what they believed originally motivated them and morph into publicity-seeking caricatures of themselves. Politics then becomes their life and the attainment and retention of public office becomes their life’s work.
This phenomenon has other systematic consequences. The irony as, columnist, Steven Pearlstein pointed out recently is that just as events in the Arab world over the past couple of months offer hope that democracy, freedom, and the rule of law may be taking root in the sandy soil of that part of the world, our politics seems to be becoming more like theirs embracing the kind of winner-take-all political struggles more associated with Sunnis and Shiites than with Republicans and Democrats.
This trend manifests itself on both the extreme right and the extreme left although the right is currently getting more attention because of their most recent electoral successes at both the federal and state level. As a result of this change we see those who win elections believing they have both the right and obligation to revisit all controversies of the recent past, toss out anything they don’t like and generally stick it to the losers in ways that help ensure that they will never regain power.
They apparently perceive that the way to do this is to drive a stake through the “enemy” party’s base and personnel in all three branches of government as well as the labor movement and even the courts by slowing or stopping appointments to the judiciary and even the independent regulatory agencies. Their problem of course will be what happens when the pendulum of democracy inevitably swings back toward the left and the extremists inhabiting that corner of the political market seek the same kind of instant gratification, recognition, and adulation from their partisans by attempting to change everything back to the way they like it.
Yes, elections have consequences. But winning an election or even more than one election by a few percentage points is not a license for radical change, revenge and the destruction of institutions including two party rules which have served this country well. Political victory also carries with it the responsibility of stewardship over a system of rules, institutions and accepted norms of behavior that took centuries to develop. They have served our country well and they are now the envy of people in Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya. We ought to reflect on that before we go to war with each other and attempt to destroy them.
With that in mind, we should also begin the process of paying more attention to the people that we elect and appoint to public office by critically examining the evolving personalities, records and words of candidates for public office at every level, their psychological fitness to govern as well as their governance philosophy. Stay tuned to the next Pursuit of Justice to find out how to do that.