Time To Play A Different Game

Focusing on Winning is What Got Us Into This Mess

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“Politicians were mostly people who’d had too little morals and ethics to stay lawyers.”― George R.R. Martin, Ace in the Hole

It should come as no surprise that politicians have a problem with credibility.

As an adjunct professor who has been teaching public speaking for the last 30 years, I introduce my students to Aristotle’s rhetoric, or the art of persuasion, made up of ethos, pathos, and logos.

“Ethos” or credibility, according to Aristotle, has to do with how the audience perceives the speaker. It is made up of two parts: character and competence.

Is the speaker sincere and honest? Does he or she believe in what they’re saying?Does the speaker actually know what he or she is talking about?

I go on to explain that some groups of people have problems with credibility. No matter what they say, people tend to think they’re lying.

When I ask for examples, invariably I get politicians, lawyers and used-car sales people. Like lawyers and used car sales people, the thinking goes, politicians will say anything in order to get your vote. This cynicism in my students is a reflection of the widespread distrust of politicians in general, whether they be Republican or Democrats.

To my students, and the majority of the American public, politicians are not perceived as public servants who represent and act on behalf of the people who have elected them. Politicians are perceived to be smooth-talking, professional deal makers, who will promise anyone anything in order to get elected and do whatever it takes to stay in power. Part bureaucrat, part mafioso, a politician is understood to be by nature self-interested and morally corrupt.

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Kevin Spacey’s portrayal of Frank Underwood, in House of Cards, is one recent example of how politicians are perceived in popular culture. Underwood ruthlessly pursues power, rising from House Majority Whip to President of the United States using deception, lies, treachery and even murder to get what he wants. At times, he pretends to represent the interests of the public, but it is strategic, a tactic he uses to consolidate his personal power.

Unfortunately, we have plenty of real-life examples of morally corrupt politicians as well, some of whom have remained in office even after their corruption is exposed. The American public is not wrong in distrusting politicians in general.

Democrats and Republicans both use this distrust to bolster their support. It is always the other party that is truly corrupt, that we need to marshal our forces to defeat.

The constant screaming match across our political divisions is exhausting, and also demoralizing. The more we vilify those we disagree with the less we are able to look honestly at our own faults.

The problem with Democrats is that they are, in many cases, indistinguishable from Republicans, and this has everything to do with Democrats “playing the game,” trying to outmaneuver the Republicans in the game of professional wheeling and dealing of power; the game of politics.

The business of politics is one in which most Americans lose because most Americans perceive that their interests are not truly represented. And as long as money has the kind of buying power it currently does in American politics, I think the American public is right. How much influence does one vote command, compared to paid lobbyists and campaign contributions? By continuing to play the game of professional politics, we leave the majority of the voting public feeling apathetic and disenfranchised.

The Democrats could decide to play a different game; one that begins with reclaiming the notion of politicians as a public servants.

How?

In relationships we decide whether we trust someone based in part on what they say, but even more by what a person does. It’s easy to say “I love you,” but the true test of love is demonstrated by actions.

What would it take for a professional politician to demonstrate his or her commitment to serve the public and to represent the public’s interests?

Stop Playing the Game And Start Getting Real

What game am I talking about? The game of business as usual.

The game of we’ve always done it this way; this is how it has to be done in order to get things done.

The game of bide your time, be patient, wait until everyone is ready, please the right people, don’t make waves or enemies by doing things differently, and don’t call out anyone out publicly.

It’s an old game. The kind of game played by the good old boys club.

The problem with much politics at present is that the good old boys are continuing to play their old games, and insisting everyone else play them too, while the world is moving in directions that have made that old game obsolete.

We can see the attempts to keep the old game going in Democrats who paternalistically scold Alexandria Ocasio Cortez’s for her “inexperience.”

“She’s new here, feeling her way around,” added Rep. Kurt Schrader (D-Ore.). “She doesn’t understand how the place works yet.”

Presumably once Ocasio Cortez “understands” she will fall in line.

Ocasio Cortez’s popularity with the public suggests that perhaps it is old school Democrats who who are behind the times.

In addressing world leaders at the United Nations climate change summit, fifteen year old Greta Thunberg wasn’t playing the game.

“For 25 years, countless people have come to the U.N. climate conferences begging our world leaders to stop emissions, and clearly that has not worked as emissions are continuing to rise. So I will not beg the world leaders to care for our future… I don’t want you to be hopeful. I want you to panic. I want you to feel the fear I feel every day. And then I want you to act.”

Leaders like Alexandra Ocasio Cortez and Greta Thunberg are not playing the game. They are exemplifying new ways of getting things done.

Start Being Accountable to The Public

If influence can be bought, all politicians are corruptible. One way politicians can restore credibility is by refusing campaign contributions from corporate political action committees. That is, Democrats need to be financially accountable to the public the serve.

On April 17, Oregon Senator Jeff Merkley announced that he had stopped taking money from corporate political action committees. He is the first member of congress in Oregon to do this.

It’s time for other politicians to follow suit.

Who you take money from is who you are accountable to. It’s time for other politicians to start being accountable to the constituents their serve, through the money they decide to accept or reject.

Tell the Public What World You Are Creating

This is different than telling people how you voted. We trust people when we know their motives; why they do what they do. Too often politicians tell us what legislation they support. It’s easy to get lost in the sea of legislation, and overwhelmed by the plethora of problems we face.

What do Democrats believe in?

If there are no clear values and no vision for what we are moving towards as well as away from, then it is easy to become reactionary — to react to the latest crisis, and to get exhausted by the sheer number of crises we face. Politicians are themselves too often reactionaries, responding to agendas rather than setting them.

As Don Draper of Mad Men famously said, If you don’t like what is being said, change the conversation.”

We have seen how this power has been dramatically used to change the climate of our country for the worse.

Rather than constantly scrambling to play catch up and try to minimize harm, Democrats need to be tell new stories, stories not about what they are going to do, or have done, but about the world they are working to create and why it matters.

“One of the truest tests of integrity is its blunt refusal to be compromised.” — Chinua Achebe

Credibility and integrity are both about what you stand against, and even more importantly, what you stand for. Now, more than ever we need politicians who stand for something we can believe in.

Here’s at least one vision of what that might be from a Democrat who, to my mind, is showing us what Democracy could be: