What I Hate About Politics

I hate politics. Mainly, I hate it because it has failed us miserably and now it seems to be bringing out the worst in us. It’s even brought us to a place where we’re willing to install a crude, narcissistic megalomaniac in the White House. That’s how bad it’s gotten.

But even without our new president-elect, it was bad. Very bad. In fact, that’s how he got elected. It was like a hail-mary pass. Even people who don’t like or respect him voted for him because it was “worth the shot.” There wasn’t anything to lose in their minds, for there was no good alternative. And they were right: there wasn’t a good option. Indeed, the same old, same old neoliberal policies and militarism of the Clintons weren’t the answer (although it was a far less reckless gamble than electing Mr. Trump).

But why? How did we get into this mess? How could politics fail us so? Why do I hate it so?

For a brief time, I was in the political arena. I served in Governor Ed Rendell’s cabinet in Pennsylvania as Secretary of Community and Economic Development. It’s probably why I hate politics so much today. During my time in Harrisburg in the cabinet, I remarked more than once that, if the good people of the Commonwealth truly understood what was happening in their state capital, they’d be marching in the streets.

But they weren’t. To this day, I’m not sure whether it’s because they don’t know what’s going on or don’t care.

As secretary, I learned that nearly all elected representatives were motivated by one thing and one thing only: re-election. I made this observation to one of my trusted deputies one day, an experienced, insightful individual who had been around the capital for longer than me, who offered the following explanation: “What else are they going to do? Most of them don’t have any other talent or skill. They couldn’t make it in the real world.”

I don’t know if that was true or not. But it sure looked that way (with a few — very few — notable exceptions). Most of our legislators were what I call “small people” — people who try to be someone important but in reality don’t contribute anything. Mainly, they just take us space. And build a bigger and better nest for themselves (which is something some of them do very well).

Yet I also saw something different during my time there. As secretary, I worked closely with the governor. I witnessed first hand his incredible passion and energy — his deep commitment to the people of our Commonwealth and his tireless efforts to get things done and make a positive difference (although we certainly didn’t agree on all the means of accomplishing that). One thing was clear to me: this man cared. And he worked his butt off. (The memories of my time with Ed remain a reminder there still are some people in politics who care about something and someone other than themselves.)

But I also heard these words from his mouth: “No one gets elected by saying no.”

Makes sense. And, that, I realized, was the crux of the matter.

It is why politicians pander. It’s why they promise, promise, promise and then, once in office, work to build their campaign chests and secure votes in lieu of finding solutions (for no solution is embraced by everyone). It’s why they pass bills that confer benefits on their constituents without bothering to find a way to pay for the spending. It’s why Pennsylvania’s pubic pensions are so deep in the red that the only way out will be a large tax increase on future generations. It’s why so many municipalities in Pennsylvania are effectively bankrupt. It’s why doing nothing is safer than trying something.

It’s why Donald Trump knew the way to get elected was by promising “to make America great again” even though he never offered any plan to make America better (unless you call building a wall, protectionism, tax cuts for the rich, unleashing banks so they can lead us into another financial crisis and allowing companies to run roughshod over the environment a plan). We love this kind of talk. And we fall for it every time.

We all want simple solutions even if they’re illusory. And we all want something for nothing. That’s where politics excels.

So what’s the point of all of this, Vera? It’s simple:

Don’t be as naive and idealistic as I was and don’t be a fool. Be smarter than your pap-pap. Recognize that most people (all of us?) are overwhelmingly motivated by one thing: our self-interest.

Self-interest can and should be held in check by systems of accountability. But if the system of accountability breaks down, as it has in politics (as well as other systems, such as higher education), then the system itself become corrupts and ineffective. Then, it will exist only to serve itself. It will have lost its soul.

In the political realm, elections are supposed to be our system of accountability. But for elections to serve that purpose, the system can’t be rigged and voters must be somewhat knowledgeable and must not reward pandering. And that’s where the system is breaking down today.

Frankly, I’m not sure how we get out of this mess and get to the point of having elected bodies and officials who are held accountable. Indeed, I’m not sure how we develop an electorate that is capable of performing its democratic role well.

Maybe we don’t get out of this mess anytime soon. Maybe this is the best we can do. That’s a scary thought, but perhaps any other is nothing but wishful thinking.

So here we are today, at the national level, with a Congress full of ideologues and small people — not all of them, but, from all appearances, an overwhelming majority of them.

I’m hopeful but I’d be shocked if anything materially changes under the new administration. In fact, if our president-elect does half of what he says he’ll do, it will be the rich and privileged people (the “elite”), including Mr. Trump and his family and descendants, who benefit immensely. The working folk will get the shaft (as they usually do). Crony capitalism will thrive.

The fact that some common folk believe this egotistical man who is obsessed with one thing and one thing only (himself) has their interests at heart is a reflection of our desperation and frustration with the current situation and our susceptibility to appeals grounded in blame and hate. There is so much blame to go around. The voters are perhaps the least culpable.

Personally, I don’t want much. It’s just that it seems like a lot because few others seem to want it, seem willing to work for it and seem willing to demand it of their elected representatives.

All I want it this: an administration and Congress that works hard to find solutions to the two overriding domestic challenges of our time:

  • global warming (perhaps the biggest threat to humanity and our way of life); and
  • the gutting of the American middle class as a consequence of globalization and technological advancements.

It’s a small list, but a very large one too. Solutions aren’t obvious or easy. The old answers (e.g., those advanced by Senator Sanders in his campaign and the neo-liberal policies advanced by Ms. Clinton in hers) won’t work. Nor will the answers advanced by our president-elect. In fact, if he implements some of his ideas, things will get a whole lot worse.

This is why I hate politics: It isn’t making things better; it’s making things worse.

It doesn’t have to be this way, of course. But for it to be different, we have to change our ways.

  • We have to encourage smart, caring people to run for office and serve in government posts, and then refrain from picking them and their families apart for imperfections that aren’t material to anything. Put simply, we have to treat politics as serious business and not like a TV reality show.
  • We have to stop electing and re-electing small people who treat politics as a “Blood Sport” (a term coined by Joe Scarborough who, by his own admission, was responsible [along with other Republicans] for taking us to that ugly place as part of the so-called Gingrich Revolution). We have to reject the politics of ideologues and extreme partisanship. If you want ideology, go to Liberty University and hang out with Jerry Falwell, Jr. But if you want to get things done, elect smart, caring people whose decisions are rooted in reason and evidence and not ideology and who are willing to work with others to solve tough problems and implement sound solutions.
  • We have to stop rewarding appeals to our fears and stop electing demagogues like Donald J. Trump and Wall Street proxies like Hillary R. Clinton. We have to stop tolerating — much less rewarding — racism, sexism and xenophobia. Bigotry cannot be deemed acceptable, and it most surely cannot be tolerated from our political leaders, including our president. We must reclaim a sense of justice.
  • We have to start electing people who are willing to say no when no is the right answer (including saying it to rich and powerful people). We have to elect people who will be honest with us even when the truth hurts.
  • We have to start reading and becoming more informed and thoughtful about our problems and potential solutions so we have a better idea whom we should support and whom we shouldn’t. We have to come to the realization that ignorance is not a strategy.
  • We have to demand true campaign reform and support a constitutional amendment so laws can be passed to limit campaign contributions, thereby limiting the influence of wealthy people, corporations and other organizations that seek to use politics purely for their own selfish ends.
  • We have to stop parroting the lies, vile innuendo, absurd conspiracy theories and other false claims that are peddled by others for their own self-interest. We have to regain a respect for facts and the truth, yet we also have to entertain the thought we don’t know as much as we think we do and, sometimes, might even be wrong. We have to stop being so easily duped. We have to stop repeating trite, mean-spirited partisan clichés and campaign slogans.

And if we can’t resist the urge to tell the world how morally and patriotically superior we are (a common refrain from the Right), or how much smarter we are than the stupid people on other side of the political aisle (a common refrain from the Left), then, hopefully, we at least will have the good sense to delete our Facebook and Twitter accounts and be quiet. As the saying goes, “It’s better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak and to remove all doubt.”

None of this seems impossible. But all of it seems entirely unreachable.

So what’s the way out?

Unfortunately, I don’t see politics as providing the escape route. And it’s not as simple as “draining the swamp” (a silly but effective campaign slogan that, I guarantee you, will yield absolutely nothing except, of course, a new prestigious position and an increase in wealth for its author and his family).

My best guess is, if there is anything that can get us off this self-destructive track and onto a better one, it’s probably a crisis of extreme proportions — something like a major financial collapse (worse than 2008-9), a world war, a collapse of civil order or precipitous major impact from global warming. I hope I’m wrong. I hope we can get back to GO without first going through hell.

In the meantime, we’re stuck with whom we are, namely, a people (i) who elect and reelect representatives who repeatedly fail to act civilly and do their jobs, who constantly sell fear and are utterly devoid of solutions that will benefit the working class, and who, indeed, routinely sell out the working classand (ii) who think it’s O.K to entrust a hate-mongering demagogue with the White House. We the people.

Politics is pulling us down; it’s not lifting us up. Politics is bringing out the worst in us.

That’s why I hate it so much.

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