my stupid politics

i don’t know when or where it was exactly that i picked this up. i assume it probably had something to do with the reagan presidency. or maybe it was just being young and stupid and not really thinking it through very closely.

in any case, for most of my life i’ve been telling people some version of: “i think the term ‘professional politician’ is ridiculous.” my thinking behind that was some mash-up of “politics is dumb” + “politicians are gross” + “what the heck do they do anyway, anybody can do that job”.


what do you want from me? i was young.

the real idiocy is that i’ve more or less left that idea unexamined through most of my life. until only very recently, i viewed the ideal “politician” as someone who’s intelligent, a good and proven leader, and independently wealthy (not that i find this to be a good in itself, but rather that it could mean independence from outside sources of financing). and as for political experience? none is ideal. better to be untainted by the smarmy world of politics and come in ready to change the status quo.

after far too many years of leaving this unexamined — after all, this “ideal” candidate from outside the realm of politics had essentially zero chance of weaving his or her way through the political machine of either major u.s. political party — i found myself finally recently reexamining it in light of the donald trump presidential run.

sure, there are a lot of reasons for me to not like trump as a presidential candidate: his xenophobia, his pandering, his glorification of violence and “eye for an eye” retaliation, his egomania, etc.

but in terms of my criteria for the “ideal” political candidate…

  • i could give him the benefit of the doubt as far as being intelligent — he is a master marketer and brand builder without a doubt;
  • he’s more of a speculative financier than a leader, and i would feel like i’m stretching it to say for sure he’s a proven goodleader, but he’s definitely been a leader of sorts;
  • and though there’s debate about just how much money he’s worth, i think it’s fair to say that he’s (quite) independently wealthy.

and… he has no political experience. he is that political outsider. and, as you might have already guessed, i have no interest in voting for him.

again, my distaste for him as a leader of the country probably has a lot more to do with the hate mongering against mexicans and muslims, the self-aggrandizement, or the fond reminiscences on the good old days in vegas when you could beat somebody up that annoyed you. maybe if these aspects weren’t part of the picture, his outsider status might mean more to me.

of course, my whole notion of the “political outsider as the savior of politics” was simply wrongheaded in the first place.

and who better to highlight it to me than aristotle. in the nicomachean ethics, aristotle wrote:

and surely he who wants to make men, whether many or few, better by his care must try to become capable of legislating, if it is through laws that we can become good. for to get any one whatever — any one who is put before us — into the right condition is not for the first chance comer; if any one can do it, it is the man who knows, just as in medicine and all other matters which give scope for care and prudence. [emphasis mine]

what he’s saying here is that a good politician isn’t someone able who simply shows up, and says “i’m ready to legislate and lead!” instead, it’s someone who is able and has the experience and knowledge to legislate well and get to good political outcomes — which for aristotle meant helping people develop into their best and highest selves (which i think is a pretty great aim).

or, think about it this way…

to be a good surgeon, you need to be very smart, have great motor skills, and be calm under pressure. but… if you need a heart transplant, is it enough for someone to show up and say “i’m smart, have great motor skills, and am cool as a cucumber under pressure”? or, would you like to also know that they studied medicine and have surgical experience?

to be a good architect, you also need to be smart, in addition to creative, precise, and have great attention to detail. now imagine you are going to work on the top floor of a skyscraper. how do you feel if the lead architect on that building was smart, creative, precise, had great attention to detail, but no training in or previous architectural experience?

finally, for the sports fans: a soccer (football) goalkeeper needs to be quick, have good instincts, be able to read people, and ideally also be big (manuel neuer is 6'4", gianluigi buffon is 6'3"). but if your side is playing a championship game, do you want someone in there that’s big, quick, instinctual, and can read people… but has never played a minute of soccer in their lives?

so then why would somebody with no training and experience be expected to know how to legislate well?

the point isn’t that experience automatically makes someone a good or worthy politician. i played soccer for quite a number of years when i was young and never ended up being any good (unless collecting yellow cards was the aim… i ended up switching to american football). but while it’s extremely easy to be cynical about politics and politicians — and, frankly, easy to be lazily cynical about a wide variety of things (probably fodder for another post) — in the end it’s a combination of ability, and study, and experience that will make the best politicians.

it seems to me that there is a disconnect between the importance of professional politicians and the general perception of them that goes beyond my own (formerly) cynical viewpoint. this is something that needs to be addressed by the education system — after all, the country’s founders thought public education was extremely important specifically because it helps create an informed and engaged citizenry. learning that there are three branches of government and the names of the signers of the declaration of independence is one thing, but understanding some political philosophy, studying how legislators do their work, and diving into the challenges of a democracy is another (and no, for high school students, this doesn’t cut it).

and of course, this only matters if citizens are willing to make the effort necessary to evaluate candidates on the basis of knowledge and experience in addition to general philosophy, stands on specific issues, and media sound bites. one might be foolish enough to think that 24-hours’ worth of news every day would give us plenty of opportunity to do just this. but instead, we’ve opted for a hyperactive mass media that reward those with striking, pithy, and often disgusting sound bites like:

“you know, it really doesn’t matter what the media write as long as you’ve got a young, and beautiful, piece of ass.”

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