Saturday, July 16, 2016

The Politician Stigma

Recently I read a sentence that said, "you've probably dreamed of becoming a model, athlete, or worst of all, a politician."

This got me thinking about how we perceive politicians. By no means is the author alone in their disgust with that particular profession. Few professions are more reviled, whether for being corrupt, inept, unbending, and/or oblivious. These things are all bad on their own, but these faults (real or imagined) are magnified by the fact that these are the people in power in this country.

However, I have a theory that this revulsion toward politics as a profession may be a part of the problem; that the politicians we have are a product of the reputation we lay upon them.

I don't think many people grow up wanting to become a politician. This is a problem to me, because I'm of the opinion that we need more politicians, not fewer. Specifically, we need more from different backgrounds.

Currently, most politicians began as lawyers, with a few actors, teachers, and veterans thrown in. My frustration with the narrow makeup of politicians is another conversation, but for now suffice to say that our politicians, especially on the national stage, are overwhelmingly homogeneous. Even if they don't share a prior career or background, they share one thing: they somehow ignored the stigma of being a politician and went for it.

That's not to say that there aren't legitimate reasons to not want to be a politician. It's competitive, high-pressure, high-responsibility, and involves interacting with a lot of people, all of which are scary prospects for many people.

However, you can say a lot of the same things about being an actor, an athlete, or an author. These fields are all very competitive and high-pressure, and they all receive a certain amount of vitriol, but nothing that compares to the disgust hurled at the very concept of the politician. Actors and athletes are become reviled for specific things they've done or said; by contrast, politicians are slimy and sub-human by their very nature, apparently.

So, while kids grow up wanting to be actors and athletes and authors and astronauts despite the low probability of success and the incredible amount of effort involved, they generally don't grow up wanting to be congressmen.

I don't want to make this sound simple; there are many reasons kids don't grow up being interested in politics, and public perception of the field is only one aspect of it. However, I think it's a significant aspect, and a telling one.

As I said, the only people currently running for office are the people who have overcome the stigma of being a politician. For some people, overcoming that stigma involves having a passion to accomplish something, and realizing that politics is the only way to do it: improving education, fighting for veterans' benefits, and so on. In that case, the importance of the cause overrides the fear of that stigma, and these people do what they would otherwise prefer not to do in order to fight for their cause. It's hard to care about something enough to want to go into politics to fight for it, but it happens, and it should happen.

And then there are the ambitious people; the ones who recognize that, despite the stigma attached to the job, politicians have power, and that's what they want. It doesn't matter what they do with it when they get it; maybe they'll do good things, maybe not. The important thing is that they have it: power, influence, stature, prestige. Ambition is their drive.

The cynic in me wants me to believe that most politicians fall into the latter camp; that there are far more ambition politicians than cause politicians. My spoony side says I can't know that, and that I have to trust in humanity; that most politicians really are just doing their best for the country, and that their failures aren't due to personal failings but because the problems in front of them are the most complex, difficult, maybe even impossible problems facing the human race.

Maybe so. If so, that's all the more reason to get rid of that stigma.

Perhaps, without that stigma, we might have more kids, more teachers, more people of different backgrounds exploring the possibilities of politics. More diversity in politics--racial, yes, but also socioeconomic and professional diversity--would help bring new ideas and structure; new life to the old system.

It wouldn't change things over night, but it might be a step in the right direction.


  1. I think the stigma is the symptom of the job being impossible for non-sociopaths to get or do—it's just too big. You couldn't ask for a less "politics as usual" guy than Obama, but he got elected and then immediately carried out basically the same foreign policy as his predecessor. The character flaws that create cynicism in people aren't just rampant among national politicians, they're explicitly being selected for, in the same way we shouldn't be surprised when professional basketball players keep being really tall.

    Rather than reducing the stigma, I think we need to reduce the role of national politics in most people's lives, because it comes from people correctly determining that nobody can ethically govern 300 million very different people. (And I'm no kind of anarchist, libertarian, etc.—I just think the unit of government has gotten to an incomprehensible size for individual human beings.)

    1. Indeed, but I think we could do both. The stigma of politicians is certainly more pronounced at the national level since more people are aware of, say, House Speaker Paul Ryan than Tucson Mayor Jonathan Rothschild. However, the stigma trickles down to politicians as a whole, not just to those at the national level. And one could argue that local politicians, given their reduced scrutiny, are capable of much more corruption than national politicians whose jobs are far more scrutinized and comparatively transparent.

      Also, while I agree we shouldn't be searching for national solutions to local problems, I'm wondering where you personally draw the line as far as what should be handled nationally vs. what should be handled at the local/state level. You mentioned foreign policy specifically, which is something I definitely think should be handled exclusively by the national government. And then there's things like gun control, which would basically need to be adopted nationally for it to be effective.

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