Many political observers believe Americans are too cynical about politicians. Take it from someone who has been blogging for more than a decade and has met countless politicians and political aides: if anything, people aren’t cynical enough.
1) The first priority of a politician is always getting re-elected: As Thomas Sowell has noted,
“No one will really understand politics until they understand that politicians are not trying to solve our problems. They are trying to solve their own problems — of which getting elected and re-elected are number one and number two. Whatever is number three is far behind.”
Politicians may care about sticking to the Constitution, doing what’s right for the country, and keeping their promises, but all of those issues pale in importance to staying employed in their cushy jobs.
2) Most politicians care far more about the opinions of interest groups than their constituents: Because of gerrymandering and America’s partisan fault lines, even under the worst of circumstances, 75% of the politicians in Congress are in no danger of losing their seats to a candidate of the opposing party. Furthermore, because of their advantages in name recognition, fund raising, and the fealty of other local politicians to someone they view as a likely winner, most challengers from the same party have little hope of unseating an incumbent either.
The only way that changes is if an incumbent infuriates an interest group on his own side that has the money and influence to help a challenger mount a credible campaign against him. That’s why politicians in non-competitive districts are far more afraid of groups like Freedomworks or the SEIU than their own constituents. Incumbents can — and often do, crap all over their own constituents without fear of losing their jobs. However, if they infuriate an interest group, they may end up in the unemployment line.
3) You shouldn’t ever take a politician at his word: People say they want a politician who’ll tell the truth. Unfortunately, that’s not true. What people actually want is a politician who’ll tell them what they want to hear and call that the truth. Partisans on both sides of the aisle have very little tolerance for politicians who deviate from accepted ideology; so the politicians get around that by lying. Most (but of course, not all) of the politicians championed by the Tea Party? They think the Tea Partiers are riff-raff, but useful riff-raff; so they cater to us. It’s no different on the Left. Most of the politicians who talk up the Occupy Movement think they’re damn, dirty hippies. They’re just useful damn, dirty hippies. That doesn’t mean no politician is ever “one of us,” but they are few and far between.
4) Most members of Congress aren’t particularly competent: On average, the politicians in Congress are generally well meaning, a little smarter than average, a lot more connected, and wealthy — but also considerably less ethical. Beyond that, they’re mostly just like a random subsection of a population. If you had a hundred random Americans in a room, a senator probably wouldn’t be the smartest person there, the person you’d want in charge, or even necessarily one of the more useful people to have around. In many respects, politicians are FAR LESS COMPETENT than the average person because so many of them led pampered, sheltered lives before they got into Congress and then have had their behinds kissed incessantly from the moment they got into power.
5) Members of Congress are out of touch: First off, even if members of Congress care about what their constituents think, they spend most of their time in D.C., not back home. Meanwhile, the median net worth of members of Congress is about $913,000. On top of that, members of Congress have staffers who do everything for them and treat them like god-kings in the process. These aides schedule their lives, read everything for them and regurgitate back what they think they need, and incessantly tell them how wonderful they are. Most members of Congress have more in common with celebrities like Madonna or Barbra Streisand than they do with the teachers, factory workers, and small business owners who vote them into office.
6) Few of them will do anything to limit their own power: It doesn’t matter if you’re talking about big government liberals or small government conservatives, very, very few politicians are interested in doing anything that will limit their own power. That’s why term limits for Congress have never passed. It’s why the ethics rules in the House and Senate are a bad joke. It’s also a big part of the reason why government gets bigger, more expensive, and more powerful no matter who’s in charge. If you expect to reduce the concentration of power in D.C. by electing different politicians, then ultimately you’re going to find that you’re barking up the wrong tree.
7) Most politicians only do the right thing because they’re forced to do it: As the late, great Milton Friedman once said,
“I do not believe that the solution to our problem is simply to elect the right people. The important thing is to establish a political climate of opinion which will make it politically profitable for the wrong people to do the right thing. Unless it is politically profitable for the wrong people to do the right thing, the right people will not do the right thing either, or if they try, they will shortly be out of office.”
If you want to change how politicians behave, then you have to change public opinion, build structural limits into the system that force changes, or make politicians fear for their jobs. If people are hoping politicians will do the right thing, just because it is the right thing, then they’re hoping in vain.