A Demand for a More Positive, Productive Politics
How I Feel When People Complain That All Politicians Are Bad People:
You can't see me right now but I am rolling my eyes. I am quite the fan of dramatic eye rolls, particularly in reaction to outrageous generalizations or completely ridiculous statements. When a student complains that the single-book-chapter-per-week requisite for the class is simply too much reading to accommodate with his bustling social life....eye-roll. When the anyone complains about the/my millennial generation as being entirely lazy/apathetic/immature/fill-in-the-blank with a negative stereotype...eye-roll. When someone states loudly in a grocery store that "you are in America, you should speak American" (and yes, I have personally witnessed two variations of this event, TWO) within earshot of other customers not speaking English, since, you know, "American" is not a language, just a nationalistic category that said loud customer and myself unfortunately share...eye-roll.*
[* to be clear, I am very proud to be an American (that and denim cut-offs are two things Lee Greenwood and I have in common). I just don't like idiots who ruin the label for the rest of us.]
But given that is election season,
and there is a major presidential election with an open seat,
and Indiana has a vacated Senate open seat,
and the Democrats are desperately trying to get back the Senate,
and the Republicans have an unpopular incumbent governor,
and the Democrats do not have a particularly strong challenger,
and the Republicans are struggling to keep their base together
and the Democrats are struggling to keep their base together...
...When anyone says that "all politicians are crooks" or "no one good actually goes into politics" or "I don't vote because they are all the same" or any variation of the aforementioned statements...I roll my eyes so hard it can practically be heard.
Puh-lease. No really, please. All politicians are bad? So then what, are you (presumably a saint yourself for feeling so self-righteous in your ability to make such a sweeping determination) going to get in public service? If so, wonderful, I applaud your interest in community involvement and look forward to seeing how even you, the most moral of the moral, will undoubtedly be scrutinized by the opposition, by the media, by the watchful elite, and by the "ignorant" masses. It is their job, and ours more generally as invested citizens (regardless of "elite"-ness or ignorance or initial apathy) to challenge the people who seek to represent us and make sure that they are the qualified individuals we want.
Alternate theory: folks who charge that all politicians are bad cite the political system for breeding, perpetuating, and institutionalizing such low character and corruption. In that case, are you going to fight to change the system, challenge the very institutional mechanisms (ahem, lack of term limits, ahem, generous campaign finance regulations) that allow the system to persist? Or are you going to cultivate good leaders you already know in your community and urge them to seek elected office to help change the system? Or, another solid option here, are you going to run yourself and take responsibility for fixing the problems and changing the system for the better? Just like the famed NRA-esqe t-shirt ("guns don't kill people, people kill people" [with guns]), systems don't create issues, people create systems which can create issues but can be resolved when people address these issues through changing the system. I am not talking radical anarchy here; small changes, such as capping SuperPAC donations in a reversal of Citizens United could dramatically change the impact of campaign finance. I am not necessarily endorsing such change either; I don't think our system is perfect, but I do not find it solely at fault.
My larger concern is the massive apathy that allows us as citizens to disengage from politics because it is "always the same" or it is "all corrupt and negative." That blame is shared among all of us, from the handful of politicians who do behave badly and perpetuate the negative stereotypes, from the media who relies on headlines involving conflict to sell ad space, from the citizens who only watch/listen/read news when it involves conflict, from the party elites who refuse to open up to outsider perspectives and diversify their base, from the "ignorant" masses who care more about The Bachelor, The Voice, or anything else more than The Election. As someone who studies, researches, and teaches in the discipline of Political Science, I have a responsibility as well to put the individual circumstances into the larger framework of the literature and rely on the research findings of the canon and contemporaries alike to better understand and explain the complexity of American politics.
Negativity is easy. Ignorance is cheap. Apathy is convenient. Too often those values characterize our campaigns and elections in a way that is irreparably damaging from both an institutions and behavioral perspective. We should demand a system and the individuals who occupy a space in such a system to be productive, not negative; insightful, not ignorant; and invested, not apathetic. And quite frankly, if we, as voters and citizens do not take on such a responsibility first as ourselves to be more productive, insightful, and invested, how can we rightly demand the same of our elected representatives? The 2016 election cycle has already been one of the books, but it isn't over yet. We should ask the difficult questions of our candidates, do the research on their politics, ideology, endorsements, and donors, and ultimately make decisions that genuinely reflect our own principled interests in our country's future. It isn't too late (yet).