Politics in a new light

I have been reading some history lateliy, and am struck by how my views of the political world has changed since I ran for office myself. 

President Franklin Roosevelt once said to a person who presented him an idea: "You're absolutely right. Now go out and make me do it."

The statement means more now than it did before. 

Politics is more the art of the possible than the art of the ideal, and it is sheer folly for a politician to offer visionary ideas which are unlikely to be passed into law. A politician only has so much credibility, and has almost no latitude to offer ideas that are ahead of their time unless the whole country is at its wit's end in a major crisis.

People make much of Hillary Clinton and President Obama's "evolution" on gay marriage. "Well, he was was for it all along, he just waited for the polls to come around to his position before announcing it out loud," say the cynics. 

Of course! What else is a politician to do? 

I was told early on to keep my mouth shut and listen. It was good advice, and I adhered to it throughout the campaign––but I was unaware what listening really meant. Rather than merely gathering ideas (and I did gather many), I spent most of the listening time time while knocking doors absorbing frustration and rage––not at myself, but at all kinds of enemies, some real, most imagined. 

Instead of listening to actually learn, I found I was listening without comment in order to allow people to at least imagine I was sympathetic to views which I sometimes found abohorrent. I was not there to soberly discuss policy; I was there to allow people to vent their frustration.

When voters I talked to expressed authentic distress due to policy, such as when nursing home administrators described their difficulties finding help due to lack of funding, or people who work in group homes for the mentally disabled describe their cuts in pay and their struggles to get by on $9 per hour, I felt helpless, knowing what a mountain there was to climb to effect even the slightest change in their plight. 

We expect politicians to hold deep views on almost everything, but the fact is, the fewer views they actually hold, the better politician they will be. And I don't mean just that they will get re-elected––I mean they will actually have the capacity to get more done if they are not committed to a particular path.

The successful legislator, and I know of many, chooses a narrow band of interests. Agriculture, roads, aviation, whatever. In order to forge policy in those areas, he or she says what it takes in other areas to get elected. Eventually, the legislator starts bringing home the bacon for the home district––and although that solidifies them electorally, they still must honor the wishes of their district on other issues such as abortion, gay marriage, gun control and so on. 

A large plurality of politicians are trained lawyers. Lawyers are taught in law school the skill of advocating for any position without regard for their personal belief on the matter. They take pride in being able to argue both sides, of being able to move from the prosecution to the defense and back again. The public finds this sleazy––but they sure want a good lawyer to take their position when they get caught with their pants down. 

It is easy to see a trained lawyer making a further jump: If I am going to be able to do my work getting proper funding for nursing homes, I have to get elected first. To get elected, a politician in northern Minnesota might say, I will do whatever the National Rifle Association says. Or the Minnesota Citizens Concerned for Life. That is the price of getting something done in your area of expertise: you supress whatever beliefs you hold on the hot button issues. If you have no beliefs in those areas, there is nothing to suppress and life is much easier. 

Such duplicity offends the naive non-lawyers. For its part, the press is constantly on alert for contradictions in a politician's statements. They think it is their duty, not to talk about serious policy issues, but to torment the politicians as they squiggle and squirm on issues the politicians don't care about, won't work on if elected, and likely will not have a chance to vote on. 

The boring but more important issues––such as bank regulation––take a back seat (heck, they aren't even in the back seat, they had to get out and walk) to the silly obsessions of the moment like flags, Ebola and the like. Serious issues go utterly uncovered and completely misunderstood by both the public and the press. That leaves those issues to be decided in back hallways by competing bands of lobbyists. The actual public takes no interest, and thus has no say. 

The daily news––all of it––is a massive distraction machine designed, intentionally or not, to keep the eyes of the public diverted while their pockets are picked. In order for this to change, we don't need different politicians. We need to "go out and make them do it." The public has to lead, and the politicians will follow. Professional politicians have a talent for that, and it is not entirely to their discredit.