A mentor of mine once explained to me his theory of what kinds of people get involved in politics in Our Great American Democracy. His opinion was that there were three types of personalities who got involved in politics.
The first is perhaps the most admirable. That would be the person who feels strongly about a particular cause or issue such as civil rights, war and peace, the environment, education, etc.
The second is the person who has a desire to serve the people and because he or she feels that she has some ability and talent which could best be shared through governmental service he or she seeks elective or appointive office.
The third is typified by the person who gets involved in politics for social and/or psychological reasons. Many times, they have difficulty finding a social circle they would like to be a part of which will accept them. This search for acceptance results from the person having trouble getting sufficient personal attention or recognition at work, at home, or in the community. This can include even so-called “elites” who can be as “needy” or more so than the rest of us.
Politicians will pay attention to anyone who can vote, is willing to work for them for little or no financial remuneration and/or contributes dollars to them or their campaign. In addition, with the advent of the 24/7 news cycle accompanied by the emergence of the social media, cheap websites, and thrill-seeking self-proclaimed bloggers and “investigative reporters,” any kind of attention-seeking words and/or behavior will be focused on in one or more of these quarters.
Often this limited exposure will expand exponentially to national or even international platforms and forums. The extent and intensity of this expansion will usually vary directly with how dramatic and controversial, even bizarre the words or behavior being exhibited are.
Unfortunately, in this atmosphere, the third type of personality, i.e. the one who gets involved in politics for social and/or psychological reasons often blends in with the first two and then takes over their body and perhaps their soul. This happens more often than not because of the need of those attention seeking persons for the kind of instant gratification which comes with the type of recognition provided by politics more readily and easily than any other adult vocation.
This kind of unexpected but sought after social and psychological validation is especially gratifying to individuals who never expected to receive any recognition or attention nor to obtain any elective or appointed office in their lifetime. They very easily forget what they believed originally motivated them and morph into publicity-seeking caricatures of themselves. Politics then becomes their life, and the attainment and retention of public office becomes their life’s work.
This phenomenon has other systematic consequences. Our politics seem to be becoming more like the politics in the Middle East embracing the kind of winner-take-all political struggles until recently more associated with Sunnis and Shiites than with Republicans and Democrats.
This trend manifests itself on both the extreme right and the extreme left although the right is currently getting more attention because of their most recent activities, including a full-scale bloody insurrection and blatant state legislative attempt to suppress the rights of voters, whom they see as the enemy, rather than as fellow Americans. As a result of this change, we see those who win, and even some who lose elections but can’t accept the result believing they have both the right and obligation to revisit all controversies of the recent past, toss out anything they don’t like and generally stick it to the losers in ways that help ensure that they will never regain power.
They apparently perceive that the way to do this is to drive a stake through the “enemy” party’s base and personnel in all three branches of government even including the courts by slowing or stopping appointments to the judiciary and the independent regulatory agencies. Their problem of course will be what happens when the pendulum of democracy inevitably swings back toward the left and the extremists inhabiting that corner of the political market seek the same kind of instant gratification, recognition, and adulation from their partisans by attempting to change everything back to the way they like it.
Yes, elections have consequences. But winning an election or even more than one election by a few percentage points, let alone overturning one, is not a license for radical change, revenge and the destruction of institutions including two party rules that have served this country well. Political victory also carries with it the responsibility of stewardship over a system of rules, institutions and accepted norms of behavior that took centuries to develop. They have served our country well and they are now the envy of people in Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya. We ought to reflect on that before we go to war with each other and attempt to destroy them.
With that in mind, we should also begin the process of paying more attention to the people that we elect and appoint to public office by critically examining the evolving personalities, records and words of candidates for public office at every level, their psychological fitness to govern as well as their governance philosophy.
— STEVEN I. PLATT
The writer is a Senior Circuit Court Judge.