All artwork in this piece is by the author.
I sometimes do a little word-association on the first day of my introductory American government classes at Rhodes College. The first word I say is “politics” and you should hear what my students come back with. “Corrupt,” they say, “dirty,” “games-playing,” “ego trip,” “a waste.” (The nicest thing I heard the last time I did this was “boring.”) Here is how they respond to “politician”: selfish, ambitious, mediocre, unprincipled.—Michael Nelson, Baltimore Sun, 1994.
As a former politician, I share Nelson’s despair. After all, as Nelson writes,
I know, as did Aristotle, that politics is a vital and potentially noble human activity. I know that politics was at the heart of our birth as a nation. (The founding fathers can be described in many ways, but no description will be accurate if you leave out the word politician.) I know that politics was the vehicle that integrated generations of our immigrant ancestors into the mainstream of American society … And I know that it’s politics that secures the basic freedoms that allow my students to say the critical things they say about politics.
But were I one of Nelson’s students today, I would give a similar response—despite the fact that I once took great joy in telling my political elders that I would never become as cynical as them.
As a senior in high school, I decided to dedicate my life to public service and—inspired by his message of hope—joined Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign. I studied political science and public administration at college. I first ran for public office at the age of eighteen, became chairman of the La Crosse County Democratic Party when I was twenty and an elected official at twenty-two, and remained a stubborn optimist and committed public servant for a long time.
I no longer feel the same way. And it scares me to think that political optimists like my former self have become an endangered species.
Even though I have known for decades that politics is a dirty game, I used to believe that most politicians were noble, dedicated public servants trying to make the world a better place. For years, I winced every time I heard someone say all politicians suck. Because I knew it wasn’t true—and because, if it ever became true, my country would be in real danger.
The US is a representative democracy, which means that we need politicians for our system of government to work—and good politicians for it to work well. Unfortunately, we have far more bad politicians than good ones today. However, luckily, the nearly uniform suckiness of modern politicians is a new phenomenon and can therefore be reversed.
But first we have to establish why our politicians suck in the first place.
There are many reasons, of course, but the main one is both the most painful and the most obvious: politicians suck because of us.
American society rests on self-governance and self-determination. We reward politicians who lie to us, argue with each other and play games, instead of governing. We punish politicians who are cordial to one another and are eager to work with people with whom they disagree. We torch good politicians who make occasional mistakes, dare to disagree ever so slightly with their base or have the audacity to tell us truths we don’t want to hear.
In addition, too few of us vote regularly. When you don’t vote, politicians don’t believe you truly care what they do and, most importantly, they don’t need you to win their next election.
Most races, especially local elections, are incredibly tight. I lost my first race by 3 votes. If you want politicians to pay attention to your demands, vote in their races, go to their meetings. Make them aware that you have your eye on them. Be polite but diligent.
If you vote in every election, for everyone from the president to the school board, and attend as many meetings as you possibly can—especially the meetings of the worst representatives—and hold their feet to the fire if need be, they will need to represent you better in order to win their next elections, which is all they really care about.
Former Speaker of the House of Representatives, Tip O’Neill was right when he famously said that “all politics is local.” Go to the meetings of your city council, town board and county board and to ad-hoc subcommittees and special commissions. Members of the public rarely show up at such events unless there is something controversial or of personal interest on the agenda. The few who do are usually baby boomers, which means that politics is more likely to reflect the interests of that demographic.
It is not enough to show up once every four years. Members of Congress are elected every two years, senators every six, state officers every two years and local officers every spring. In addition, there are periodic special elections and referenda. Your voting history is publicly available, too. If they know that you only vote in presidential elections, the politicians representing you will not take your views into consideration. If you can barely bring yourself to vote once every four years, why would a politician think you can or would hold her accountable when she does something you don’t like?
In addition, politicians suck because the public does not value them. Running for office is exhausting and stressful for both the candidate and her loved ones and success is never guaranteed. The last time I ran for office was for a position on my city council. I knocked on over 1,000 doors, often in below-freezing temperatures, just to lose. Political positions are not always well paid, either. As a county board supervisor, I was paid well below minimum wage, if you divide the tiny monthly stipend I received by the hours I spent at and preparing for meetings. Public service shouldn’t be about the money, of course, but you get what you pay for.
Governing well also requires expertise. Until we start to treat public service as a profession, we will continue to be served by amateurs.
As long as public service requires such tremendous free time and financial security to fill these demanding essential roles, most governing bodies will continue to be dominated by the people who have all the time and money in the world, retirees and the wealthy.
The US democracy is the responsibility of US citizens. The source of its problems and the means of their solution lie not with the politicians, but with Americans. Most American politicians suck, but they don’t have to.