Look around you next time you’re in class, on the freeway, on the way to work. Think about the people around you, the way they interact with one another, their priorities, their fears and aspirations. For better or for worse, it all seems pretty normal doesn’t it?
The average American, hell, the average person, wants health, wealth, and happiness. We want to love and be loved. We want to live in a society whose core principles are founded upon the general interest. We’re not the most selfless or altruistic bunch, but given the decision between helping or hurting our fellow man (or woman), we would much rather help. Just as long as that help doesn’t entail getting up off the couch.
That’s the average person. It doesn’t mean we’re bad or good, we just are. There’s a beauty to that simplicity. Something about the acceptance of being that is incredibly calming. Like the moment you realize you love your spouse, as much for their flaws as for their strengths.
And then there’s Politics – a realm, much like sports, entertainment, and Wall Street, in which the simple simplicities that we’re accustomed to, more often than not, seem not to apply.
Let me explain:
I’m engaged in a few political circles. I entered politics, on a heavy basis, a little over a year ago. I came to this realm from the nonprofit sector. I started a young adult job training and mentoring nonprofit called uFish as a senior in high school and ran it for over 5 years. I’ve worked with People for Parks to turn inner-city elementary schools from concrete nightmares into community parks. I have helped put together food drives, toy drives, soup kitchens on holidays, clothing drives, abuse center mentoring sessions for women and children. I’m working now with a social technology firm on an artificial intelligence program that incentivizes teens and young adults to pursue their dreams and cultivate their passions by providing them with a self-teaching guide that pushes you into real-world missions, mentor connections, and local groups with similar goals.
Have I been awesome at all of this? Nope. I always think of more I could have done. I’ll be the first person to tell you I’m not perfect, not even close. But for all of my flaws and learning experiences, I can say this without a doubt: I have never stopped trying, even if sometimes I wanted to.
And you know what? Every minute I’ve spent writing a proposal, seeking out a new facility, working with people who needed help and wanted to help themselves, meeting people who actually gave a crap; every minute was a joy. And every minute and moment I have spent doing that has reinforced what I’ve known about myself since I was a kid: I want to actively engage in the assistance of others with whatever resources and talents I may have at my disposal. This realization about myself has helped me weather many a storm.
Through it all, I have always idealized politics. I’m obsessed with political philosophy. From initial theories of a social contract to ideas of an original human position, from the Magna Carta to the Declaration of the Rights of Man. Hobbes to Rawls. It consumes more of my thought than seems normal.
The image of the impartial, non-monolithic, benevolent guardian of governance who honors its contractual obligation to protect and serve us as we, the ever-loyal Socratic citizens, vow to abide by its laws in defense of Her services. And the Senators, chosen directly by citizens, who through sheer numbers and engagement control the will of us all, who act as none other than the megaphones of the people – accountable, representational, unmoved by the corruption of the mistresses of power, greed, and well… mistresses. A balance system of equal powers whose pillars, Justice (Judicial), Leadership (Executive) and Plurality (Legislative) provide the unfaltering foundation for a society built to sustain any and all ills through the sheer brilliance of its design.
I know, stop laughing. But while you’re piping down, don’t tell me you didn’t, for however brief a moment, envision how beautiful an image that could be. How could you not? That image is the genius of our conception as a nation. The culmination of over two milennia of social and philosophical progress.
Alright back to reality, back to story time.
Like I was saying, I’m involved in politics here and there. The other day I was on my way to one of these meetings.
(Note: I must be intentionally vague so as to not express who or what I am speaking about but rather to convey a point.)
This meeting wasn’t comprised of ultra-insiders or people you would consider to be part of the corrupt machine of party politics. They would be identified by most “insiders”, at first glance, as idealistic, passionate, grassroots volunteers lending their time to local politics to help their community. At first glance.
During the course of this meeting I heard cancer research for people with lung diseases onset by smoking described as “good but…” (does it really matter what comes after but) and saw congratulations between people whose personal preferences and minute misgivings resulted in a lack of support for anti-smoking measures. I saw “high-minded idealists” choose frugal disquietude over bold progressive solidarity in a situation where the latter was certainly needed.
These may not be awful offenses, and this certainly wasn’t a group of bad people by any stretch of the imagination; my observations are simply small examples that are, to me anyway, emblematic of a pattern of thought that permeates through a collective consciousness. I could provide you with ten more examples from ten more meetings with completely different political groups. Again, these aren’t instances, they are systemic mindsets in the realm of politics.
Now, it would be easy to say I saw apathy, a lack of general welfare, and a betrayal of utilitarianism in lieu of self-interest.
But what I saw, and see often, seems to be much more frightening than that: I see and meet people completely drunk with the idea of one day having the power of the people they imitate. It is the strongest form of indirect mentoring. A clear archetype of why the general public feels as if politicians don’t give a crap about them. I mean, if these people, who are on the periphery of the inner sanctums, looking in with salivating apprehension, can so summarily dismiss the felicity of the commoners than what must become of the people allowed to enter? I suppose at the bottom of it all I see a desire for acceptance and elements of cowardice.
Before I continue, let me say this: I have met some truly great people in politics, people who have given me hope and inspiration, people who encourage me to stay and fight rather than despair and flee, people who make me believe that politics can be a transformative forum of pragmatic yet progressive values. There are those who do stand up for what’s right and not what is convenient, those who use logic to drive their hearts and emotion to dictate their minds when each occasion arises. Those, to use a cliche, who are in it for the right reasons. In full disclosure, I believe our current President to be one of those people.
Unfortunately, they seem to be in the clear minority and even more endangered the closer you move to the top.
And so enter the nagging questions. Why is this the case? Do misanthropic power-brokers flock to finance and politics only to have a forum in which to cultivate their already self-interested personalities? Or does this toxic realm simply contaminate them? Are the mistresses of wealth and power simply too powerful for us creatures of evolution, inexorably driven to increase our fitness and survive (which in modern society means power and wealth), to deny? Or does the culture of a cyclically corrupt system simply engender the wrong people to enter?
I guess sometimes it’s all of those things. But to be honest, I’m starting to feel as if I’m asking the wrong questions. Maybe it’s a lot simpler than all that. Maybe it goes back to who we are.
We are mostly average people who desire health, wealth, and happiness. Love and acceptance. Not too selfless or altruistic. Probably desire the good of others, unless it takes any real work.
And in a realm like politics, like any tight knit group with a wealth of influence, your currency is your amicability. Don’t make enemies, don’t speak up. Do what you’re told, follow the party lines, and you’ll be taken care of just fine. It’s a clear path to health, wealth, and happiness. Acceptance amongst your peers. Altruism in the face of opposition is difficult. It means getting off the couch. And god knows, we just won’t do that.
And maybe that’s precisely the problem.
Maybe being who we are is fine in every other aspect of life. As a species, it may lead us to environmental decay and overconsumption of limited resources but hey, whatever, we all get to watch 16 & Pregnant and pop open a cold brew at day’s end.
But not in politics. Call me naive, call me unreasonable. I believe that politics is a realm in which individuals must consistently wage battles against their own nature to become something larger and better than themselves so that they may understand the gravity of their decisions and act accordingly.
Unfortunately, many in this realm don’t. They approach their jobs the way a stocking clerk would approach their profession. Given, stocking shelves is damn respectable work. You show up early, work hard, earn money, and go home for well-needed rest. However, while you’re there, you follow protocol and go through the motions. Systematized instruction following leads to efficient import-export of goods. It’s what the job requires. (I would know, I’ve stocked in a warehouse before, amongst a whole other litany of odd jobs, since I was 15). There are a whole host of jobs like that.
But there is another type of job – firefighter, police officer, teacher, doctor, soldier, scientist, and yes, politician. These jobs aren’t better than others. They’re simply different. Performance isn’t based on resumes and references in these positions, or rather, they shouldn’t be. These professions require individuals who understand that their on-the-job decisions affect the lives of others, in very significant and crucial ways.
If that sounds unfair, then don’t apply.
Don’t apply to be a police officer or soldier because you get a rush out of shooting guns, don’t apply to be a teacher so you can get summers off, do not apply to be a doctor because you’re all-but guaranteed six figures a year, and do not apply to be in politics because you have a penchant for competition and are adept in the art of sophistry.
I guess the real answer then is that maybe nothing happens to people who enter politics. Maybe that’s the problem.
Maybe one who makes decisions on behalf of their community, from the local neighborhood councilperson to the President, should dig deep inside him or herself and find the strength to always do the right thing and make the decisions that behoove the greatest good. That does not mean stubbornly failing to understand the gamesmanship, the compromise, or the elements of effective leadership. It simply means having the sheer strength of character and will to always act in the best interest of those who have entrusted the shaping of their communities, their society, and their country to you.
Or maybe I’m just asking for too much.
Although given the character of leaders I’ve seen in just my lifetime and the potential of people I personally know, I highly doubt it.