Psychology of Politics (and Politicians)

I never professed to understand French politics as more than an observer.  It was one part of the French civilization that seemed a bit overwhelming.  I remember being told there were over fifty political parties.  It seemed as if getting anything done required an amazing amount of compromise. I was impressed by the fact they had elections on Sundays.  How delightful to have an election day when nobody had to work, let alone request an excuse from the same.  No little “I voted” stickers. I remember thinking we never could have pulled off Sunday elections in the states.  Certainly not in the Boston area, where I grew up.  Home of blue laws, those strange laws that said things like you could not dance in certain places on Sunday, the day of the Lord, so people in bars in certain localities where such laws persisted would park their bottoms on bar stools and tap their feet in all manner of ways, so that no church could define such activities as dancing.

People told me I would have troubles in France because it was a “Catholic” country.  I do not think any trouble I can remember came from the few people who actually attended church regularly. But back to politics.  The parties were grouped into “left,” “right,” and “center.”  The left included the commies, whom I had to reassure that even though I was an American I did not hate them.  I found “rightists” fearing change as obsessively as any conservative (read “ultra-republican” American ever could.

I remember thinking then that I thought bipartisan like with the “Democrat” and “Republican” labels in the United States was somehow too simple and devoid of subtlety, to say the least.  A simple “us vs. them” life that seemed dumbed-down compared to the complexity of life and the universe.

I will admit that once, when I was somewhere around the end of high school or the beginning of college, I had brief thoughts about somehow having a political career much, much later in life.  Now at that time I never would have believed for a moment that anyone could love or marry anyone so eccentric as I.  When I was retirement age, I would have that “nothing to lose” feeling that comes with a mature career. When Nixon was impeached, I briefly fantasized about being the voice of morality in a corrupt world, leading something like impeachments.

As time has gone by, little or nothing has happened to cause me to see politics as anything other than the refuge of scoundrels.  I certainly don’t think of one party as better than the other.  I do think politics is unworthy of being called a “profession,” as its domination by corporations and private interests and lobbyists and money and such are responsible of all sorts of things easy to describe by the media. People do seem to put on blinders as a function of their power base and other biases.  I simply cannot find any credible idealism, anyone who has chosen public service over lining their pockets with some kind of legal (or illegal) tender.

That is why I am amazed to have heard recently about someone whose actions I genuinely respect.  The things Evan Bayh is talking about make sense to someone like me, who occasionally got called “morally rigid.” I have heard that he is a Mormon.  If so, people like him may be the reason that Howard Hughes sought Mormons to run his finances.  Still, I think there are a few real people out there who are of either every faith, or no faith.  (I have known some great atheists.)

If politics gets anything done at all, it would require compromise and paybacks. I have seen scoundrels in every profession, including my own.  I have never seen a profession that is set up to select for scoundrels, the way politics is. I actually find myself thinking of one of my favorite presidents, certainly the most “regular guy” of any president of the 20th century I can think of, Harry S. Truman.  I believe that he could not have risen from (failed) haberdasher had he not let the powerful “machine” of (“Boss”) Pendergast get him started.  But once things reached a certain level, he was open about how he got his start, and severed himself from the machine.  I know that many people rise with “machine” type financial help.  They never seem to sever from it, not the way he did.  Maybe it is a financial impossibility.  But we do not have people like Harry S. Truman anymore.  I have made my pilgrimage to his presidential library both pre- and post-maritally.

Years before I visited that library, my grandmother of blessed memory made certain my brother was named “Harry S. Goldstein.” I don’t exactly have my finger on the pulse of politics.  So I was interested to read an article that puts Bayh’s resignation into political context. Thomas Jefferson wrote in the Federalist papers about trusting in the wisdom of public opinion.  I believe that he believed that extremists would somehow cancel each other out, the way that positive seven and negative seven add up to zero, and that moderation would rule.  The opposite has happened, I think.  Moderation is disappearing.  Oh, there are other things going on, like the salary for a senator is not what it used to be.  But most of all, I think we have descended into excessively simplistic thinking.  So simplistic that not much can get done.  At least, not in politics.

I remember the Medieval Times pageant my husband and I attended and I cannot remember which city, where someone threw me a platter of chicken I ate with my fingers while I was cheering on a color coded knight in a joust.  You just wanted your color to beat the other color because it was your color and the opposition wasn’t.  They set the people with the greasy chicken fingers to a surprisingly high level of emotional involvement.  

Us vs. them. From Thomas Jefferson’s idea of enlightened citizens of a republic, we have descended, politically, into a world of conservative vs. liberal, and can ill define those who may be a mixture of the two. Does anyone still believe that the best and brightest go into politics? It may be that if we are selecting for people who want to be ethical and “good” and believe in public service and want to get things done, they may just be people who avoid or get out of politics.  Whatever we are doing, it is very clear that we do not choose our politicians but what they do to make our lives better.

For openers, we avoid those who have sex scandals.  One, and you are done.  Of course, this seems to be the province of men, since nobody seems to ever have heard of a woman whose career was ruined by a sex scandal, except maybe in the movies.  Actually, some have suggested, like Napoleon Hill, in his still-a-good-read “Think and Grow Rich” that high achievers tend to be “highly sexed.” So we may be eliminating individuals who are best suited to, say, running a government.

Back to the emotionality.  People do not make decisions rationally. This is certain true of how people choose to vote.  Of course, we are not going be given a choice of the best and brightest.  I remember, when I was very small, when my father said a man had to be handsome or else he could never become president.  I did not understand then.  I remember reading somewhere, long ago, that the winner of every presidential election was the taller of the two candidates.  Are we subconsciously choosing somebody to “look up to?”

All of this starts to sound familiar to me.  Because I have been addicted to academic reading for a long time.  Smart observers of the British and the American scene predicted back in the eighteenth century we would go the route of  “unrest”that became “passions.” Folks like the French essayist Montesquieu.

No, I wasn’t born French.  I was born over the bridge from the Freedom Trail in Boston, Massachusetts. We have simply come too far from our own ideals.  Jefferson liked the French, too. Maybe I can continue to convince my husband we can retire there.  Even as expatriates we could get free health care.

But then, I am the sort of person who raises her voice at other doctors, trying to keep them honest.

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