Trusted Politicians

Sound like an oxymoron?

There’s good reason for that.  Not just in fact, but in principle, it is hard to square politics with trust. Trusting a politician may be an exercise in pre-meditated resentment.

Vietnam-era Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara once said,  referring to interacting with the press, “never answer the question you are asked; always answer the question you wanted to be asked.”

That may or may not be a good recipe for politicians; it is certainly bad advice for anyone who would be trusted. It speaks volumes to the desire to control others’ opinions, refuse to engage, and to willingness to appear evasive.

Mark Twain’s comment, “Congress is the only distinctly criminal class” is typical of our desire to believe otherwise—and our continued disappointment when the next politician reveals his colors. “Meet the new boss—same as the old boss,” sang Roger Daltrey years ago.

There’s a reason. Politics requires a continual calculation of how to align with the majority. A minority politician is, pretty soon, a losing politician. Passing legislation requires convincing others; getting elected requires convincing others. The art (or science, increasingly) of politics is combining effective majorities across various issues, while minimizing the perception of the minorities as being on the other side.

That means there is virtually no single principle that a successful politician can afford to consistently endorse.

Yet all the while, we engage with politicians in a mutual conspiracy to deny that this is the case. We insist on believing that politicians believe in principle; and they in turn use the language of principle, in order to gain our votes.

Then we become outraged in the cases when politicians are caught violating their principles—whether it’s Republican homophobes caught with their pants down, or Democratic social liberals invested in subprime mortgages.

Logically, we should not be enraged. Humanly, we are. Because we want to trust, and trust requires some measure of consistency around principles.

The answer may lie partly in losing our innocence. Trust in politics arguably requires term limits. Only lame ducks can afford to vote from principle.

On the other hand, to surrender to cynicism and accept politics as merely an exercise in coalition-building is to move in the direction of single-issue politics—abandoning the middle, and any hope for unity.

Or, to continue to hope for the best—a politician with just enough principles and persuasive capability to actually sway opinion. To create a majority where none existed.  A real leader, in short.

Well, hope springs eternal.

10 replies
  1. Brooks C. Sackett
    Brooks C. Sackett says:

    Dear Charlie,

         I look forward to election seasons because of the chance to study the candidates’ public speaking skills.  That’s all. I’d love you to be right that a politician will emerge with the principles and persuasiveness necessary to create a new majority.  But I don’t think such a politician would prevail. After all, in the American society principles, trust and honesty don’t have the constituency and campaign funding appeal necessary to get elected.

         Thanks, Charlie!


  2. Lark
    Lark says:

    Gee whiz, Charlie, lest I’m completely off my rocker, we actually do have a politician on the scene that can unite us under one unifying set of  principles for governance.

    That singular guiding principle is called the rule of law – as found only in the good old Constitution of the United States of America and its accompanying Bill of Rights.

    Another principle we Americans tend to rally around is universally called the free market economy – an oxymoron if ever there was one, to be sure.

    So is there an honest politician running for President this election cycle? One who can be trusted?

    Now…  I know you know…  I have an opinion about that one, don’t you? :>)

    But because I’m convinced of you and your readers’ powers of cognitive ability, I trust ya’ll will enjoy investigating an honest appraisal of this question for yourselves.

    It’s not such a chore really. In point of fact, politics is the original contact sport – we just didn’t know what to make of it back then… since we probably hadn’t  developed sufficient language for it yet.

    Anyway, there’s a school of thought in  anarchist and so-called voluntaryist political philosophy circles which propounds that…  to vote…  is merely feeding in to a corrupt, freedom-robbing enterprise – thus lending unconscionable legitimacy…  to that which some derisively call…  government.

    And, you know, I used to think so too – especially after I’d discovered my vote didn’t count in 2000 and 2004.

    But these days, there’s some nasty winds a-blowing and all sorts of rumors have given me pause…

    Like the ones I found here.

    My comment is the very last word – #94.

    Oh, BTW, did you watch the last FOX News presidential debate? (I know, I know… that would be Faux News – isn’t that right?)

    Here’s some media analysis and video clips from a Fordham University professor and fellow book author, Charlie. He seems to feel it’s not the politician – albeit, a rare one – who’s the untrustworthy one.

    Moderate this commentary at will. I know the topic of politicians and those who speak of these slimy bastards is taboo…  since decent people are wont to gloss over and dismiss such things…  as vile…  and not always permitted…  in polite society!

    So,  not to worry. You won’t hurt my feelings one gosh-darned bit. <<((:>)>

  3. Shaula Evans
    Shaula Evans says:

    I agree that the US political system is profoundly broken, Charlie, but I still found your post to be cynical.

    You write: "That means there is virtually no single principle that a successful politician can afford to consistently endorse."

    I would disagree, strongly.  Upholding the constitution and the Rule of Law are two principles that successful politicians /shouldn’t/ be able to afford not to endorse.  (Note I said "shouldn’t," rather than "can’t." I didn’t say you were the only cynic.)

    . . .

    You write: "Politics requires a continual calculation of how to align with the majority."

    I need to disagree here, for three reasons.

    #1 US politics actually has very little to do with views held by the majority of voters in many instances.  (Cf our earlier conversation about the politics of US Healthcare policy.)

    #2 Of course, it depends on how you define "majority," because major donors on the other hand wield a huge influence on US policy decisions. (Cf the recent study which found that companies that give money to political campaigns have better-performing stocks than companies that don’t contribute.)

    #3 Keep in mind the kultur kampf perspective: for over 30 years, the Republican party has gone to great lengths to stay in the same conservative position while manipulated social institutions to conservatize American culture (including not just the obvious current manifestations, such as corporate media ownership and the PR offensive against legitimate climate change science, but longer standing projects such as the infiltration and takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention, the push to change national public school textbook content, etc.).  In other words, these politicians did NOT chase the crowds; they aligned the majority with their partisan political agenda.

    . . .

    You write: "Trust in politics arguably requires term limits."

    Well, I’ll agree with you that trust in politics requires serious reform.  I don’t know that term limits are /the/ answer.

    I would like to see widespread media reform, starting with the breakup of media monopolies and the reinstitution of the Fairness Doctrine.  Likewise, the US desperately needs /meaningful/ campaign finance reform, and the best solution to break up funding corruption and the tendency towards to plutocracy would be finance limits and publicly funded elections.

    . . .

    You write: "Only lame ducks can afford to vote from principle."

    So how do you account for the late Senator Paul Wellstone?

    . . .

    One last nit: please beware that the American political example does not necessarily map 1:1 to politics in the rest of the world.

    . . .

    While you and your readers are waiting for that fabled Real Leader to come along, there’s actually a great deal individuals can do to make a difference.

    In addition to working for meaningful political reform, a really powerful way to make an impact on politics is to help get principled politicians into higher office by: getting involved in the primary or caucus process of selecting candidates; getting involved in candidate recruitment; and, at the beginning of the process, helping build up a farm team of principled politicians by getting involved in local politics at your state or local community level.

    The joys of a democracy are that if you don’t like it, you can change it, and while people are rightfully feeling alienated and disempowered with US politics these days, there actually is still a great deal you can do as an individual.

    . . .

    And if you’d like a truly inspirational example of a principled leader, look no further than Aung San Suu Kyi.

    There actually are people out there who do politics with ethics and integrity — even if they don’t get as much press as the egregious counter examples.

  4. Ian Welsh
    Ian Welsh says:

    I would add Russ Feingold to the list of principled politicians – it took real guts to be the only Senator to vote against the Patriot Act just days after 9/11.

    The problem with term limits is that it takes time for politicians to become effective and to know what’s really what.  Term limited politicians are often at the mercy of people who aren’t term limited but are still in government – the permanent government of bureaucrats and paid lobbyists who have been around long enough to know what’s what.   This is true both in executive and legislative positions.

    Being term limited does help with voting ones conscience in the sense that in the last term you can get away with it, but it can come at the cost of ineffectiveness, and it only helps in the /last/ term.

    At the Federal level ask yourself this – of the post Roosevelt presidents which ones would have had a third term?  Would the US have been better off with them having a third term?

    And would the US have been better off if Roosevelt had been term limited out?

    While the excessive advantages that incumbents have in most US systems is awful, term limits are also, in my view, rather anti-democratic.  If someone could win… why shouldn’t voters be allowed to choose their prefered candidate?

  5. Charlie (Green)
    Charlie (Green) says:

    Hmm, great stuff.  I will plead naivete, first of all, as I’m not a political blogger.

    Then again, I stuck my foot in here, so let me clarify something about term limits.

    All I was claiming is that term limits may be a necessary–not a sufficient–condition for being trusted or principled.  I don’t suggest for a moment that term limits would create trust–merely that their absence may inhibit it.  So I can quite agree with the potential danger of lame ducks, e.g. Lil’ Bush, aka Shrub.

    And while making a claim about necessary conditions can be undercut with counter examples, I don’t see Wellstone or Feingold as dispositive.

    Wellstone beat the only incumbent senator to lose in his campaign against Boschwitz, thanks to a major faux pas blunder by the latter.  After that, he was an incumbent.

    More importantly, "principled" can be awfully local.  I suggest Feingold’s principled vote was precisely the kind of vote that people vote for in Wisconsin.  Try doing it if you’re from Alabama.  I’m not sure that either Feingold or Wellstone could have been elected mayor of Diddleyville in New Jersey–their persona of rugged independence would have gotten smothered in the land of my-cousin-can-get-you-a-goverment-job. 

    In fairness, there is a potential circular argument here.  If I argue that you can’t get elected without being willing to violate principles, then it’s very tempting to claim that anyone who got elected did so not because of principles, but because their principles happened to fit squarely with their electorate’s principles.  And that would not be fair.

    Trouble is, there’s a lot of truth to it.  Take Barney Frank, a principled guy with courage.  He couldn’t get elected dogcatcher in South Carolina. 

    Again, I’m not advocating term limits, merely pointing out that without them–or something else that removes the pressure for re-election–you cannot necessarily trust people to vote on principle.  And, to be clear, I’m not saying that’s a bad thing.  It comes down to a tradeoff.  Sometimes we’d rather have the right to vote for someone who isn’t necessarily trustworthy, but whose positions we support, rather than to have that choice denied us by a term limit system.  I’m just saying it’s a tradeoff.

    I think you’re right that campaign finance reform would be helpful.  At least it would remove the financial part of the pressure for reelection. 

    The biggest counter-argument, I think, is Shaula’s, about the ability of groups to shift people’s opinion, rather than simply count votes and cleverly shift one’s position to match them.

    Problem is, who writes the history books?  I happen to agree with Shaula (I think) that the Republicans have been masters of propaganda (the statistics on the current events ignorance of Fox TV watchers is astonishing); the principle of the Big Lie, after all, was named by Orwell, and invented long before him. 

    (Remember the movie Dave?  The guy who faked being President?  His ultimate speech to the nation was about how it was time for sincerity, convictions, a person who stood up for principles and what they believed.  This was a reaction against cynical politicians.  Well, careful what you wish for; at least in my humble opinion, our current President is about as much a principled true believer as any president we ever had.   Give me a good old wheeler-dealer, please.  )

    Who will bell the cat?  One man’s propaganda is another man’s persuasive rhetoric.  I sometimes  have a lot of trouble distinguishing Move from some of the right wing movements.  Same partisanship, same shrillness.

    I do not have answers.   I’m not even saying lack of trust is necessarily a bad thing (though all else equal–which of course they rarely are–it probably is bad). 

    I am just publicly struggling with the question of how it is that we can come to trust, or cannot come to trust, those in positions of leadership or power in our governmental structures. 

  6. Ivan
    Ivan says:

    "principles", "persuasive capability", "create a majority where none existed"

    That is one of the clearest definitions of  leadership that I’ve seen in a long time. Almost no politician fits those qualities. That’s why we become so excited when someone comes along that has an inkling of even one of those qualities. And then we trust them. And then we get disappointed, the majority of the times. We can just hope for the best, people.

  7. Shaula Evans
    Shaula Evans says:

    I’m still digesting your comment, Charlie — thank you for replying at such length.

    And in the meantime, our old friend John McCain has popped up a timely anecdote for this discussion:  although he is on public record as a life-long Episcopalian, McCain is suddenly claiming to southern states that he’s a baptist.

    I’m afraid that John McCain went beyond "jump the shark" and "train wreck" metaphors some time ago, and is now deep into "Greek tragedy" territory.  (Either that, or opera bouffe.)

    I can’t imagine how McCain’s camp thought that such blatant and callow pandering would be good for his campaign.  How does he expect Episcopalians or Baptists, Northerners or Southerns, to trust a man who’s willing to lie about the church he attends?

  8. Lark
    Lark says:

    Tomorrow is another televised GOP presidential debate sponsored by MSM giants CNBC/MSNBC/WSJ – this time focused on the economy.

    Notice how it will be moderated – and controlled – by skillful message-shaping of the debate process. See how the war-mongers will try to drown out the one dissenting anti-war voice you’ll hear…

    … Since war is good for business… at least for some – including the MSM.

    It’s useful to acknowledge that the top-down management of our capitalist economy has resulted in what is, in effect, simply disguised socialism – socialism for the very rich; and capitalism for everybody else in the middle.

    Everyone struggling assumes government owes them something – and, you know how it is, when you own something… it also owns a piece of you.

    Assumptions made about "just the way it is" is having given in to authoritarianism. When capital clusters… it breeds monopolistic impulses… which breeds more rules… regulations… and more laws… to "protect" us.

    All life is a series of orchestrated events; but money seems to dictate what we finally can and cannot do. And assumptions are borne from false beliefs; themselves, borne from fear of the unknown.

    Our money masters thus control us, like slaves. Their public relation machine is always turned on and tuned in to what’s "in our best economic interests." But absolute authority breeds contempt. And authoritarianism leads to totalitarianism… which leads to one-world government… and, finally, to an Orwellian world of ultimate oppression – leaving us in a position to be unable to win back the freedoms we let slip away.

    This paints a pretty ugly picture of what most Americans tend to forget:  We’ve had no less than a cabal of puppetmasters operating behind a veil of secrecy… manipulating our economy… and our money supply… since the creation of the Fed in 1913.

    The big central banks are owned by their shareholders; and as they are private corporations owned by their shareholders, the average American is not permitted to know who actually owns and operates the real business of America – or its corporatist, fascisti-style government.

    These big banks control the value of our money. Their shareholders are among the wealthiest people in the world. And, like our government, it’s hierarchical in nature and increasingly authoritarian.

    With the enactment of the 16th Amendment authorizing the privately-owned Fed to loan money to our government… with  interest… Americans are no longer free… since we do not have elected representatives which can be held accountable for the value and availability of the people’s money. What was once a Constitutional safeguard to ensure our money would hold its value… or was even sound… with a fixed rate of exchange… and the backing of a tangible asset… is long gone.

    These monopolistic central banks collude… across national borders… in Europe, the Americas, and in Asia. And since federal  or state regulations enacted by our legislatures often impede the growth of profits for these multi-national corporations… they coerce our representatives with quid pro quo arrangements… in all the branches of  government… to prevent or eliminate those which might reflect directly on them… thereby controlling us…

    … Because capital doesn’t respect national borders, the rights of human workers – nor does it respect our biosphere. Corporations exist solely for the benefit of their shareholders; and a corporatist government intent upon hegemony, likewise, is answerable only to the Fed… and the globalists… who  trend towards monopoly.

    And we mustn’t forget: The #1 export of the USA is weapons of war and mass destruction.

    This no accident; it’s entirely by design. We have a military presence in over 130 countries around the world. And the military industrial complex receives up to 50% of total  government largesse… in the form of no-bid contracts to favored corporations… and foreign policy initiatives… driven by commercial interests.

    Monopoly – when we examine its existence throughout history – can almost always be traced to government intervention in the "free market." It always involves favoritism… insider deals… and collusion.

    We call it corporate welfare – especially when tax policy favors these special interests – and huge multi-national corporations employ lobbyists to hand out campaign contributions to those of our representatives who play along with their agendas.

    Public welfare is the sop our representatives throw their constituencies to help keep them in office – since conditions must be maintained to not impede the flow of capital.

    The IRS was established to illegally tax the people on the money received in exchange for their labor.  Today it’s collected to help pay the interest on our national debt.

    Check it out. As they say… Google it. That this was, and still remains, unconstitutional, is beyond dispute by most scholars who’ve studied this fact.

    In a truly free market economy,  by adhering to the vision laid out by our nation’s founders in the Constitution, we once declared ourselves to be a freed people.

    Our form of governance, as exemplified by a proscribed rule of law and a system of checks and balances spelled out in our Constitution,  had been heralded as the finest compact between the government of a freed nation-state… and of a free people… ever devised by man.

    Yet anyone who owns property or engages in commerce today understands they are NOT really free anymore.

    The deck has been stacked against us since before we were born, people.

    So maybe we never were free. But one thing is for sure – more and more government equals less and less freedom. And big business cares little about your rights as  a free person except when you contribute to their bottom line. Nor does it respect this country’s sovereignty either. Another sad fact to ponder when one also considers:

    “Capitalism should not be condemned, since we haven’t had capitalism. A system of capitalism presumes sound money, not fiat money manipulated by a central bank. Capitalism cherishes voluntary contracts and interest rates that are determined by savings, not credit creation by a central bank. It’s not capitalism when the system is plagued with incomprehensible rules regarding mergers, acquisitions, and stock sales, along with wage controls, price controls, protectionism, corporate subsidies, international management of trade, complex and punishing corporate taxes, privileged government contracts to the military-industrial complex, and a foreign policy controlled by corporate interests and overseas investments. Add to this centralized federal mismanagement of farming, education, medicine, insurance, banking and welfare. This is not capitalism!”

    “Special interests and the demented philosophy of conquest have driven most wars throughout history. Rarely has the cause of liberty, as it was in our own revolution, been the driving force. In recent decades our policies have been driven by neo-conservative empire radicalism, profiteering in the military industrial complex, misplaced do-good internationalism, mercantilistic notions regarding the need to control natural resources, and blind loyalty to various governments in the Middle East.”

    “When one person can initiate war, by its definition, a republic no longer exists.”

    “Freedom is not defined by safety. Freedom is defined by the ability of citizens to live without government interference. Government cannot create a world without risks, nor would we really wish to live in such a fictional place. Only a totalitarian society would even claim absolute safety as a worthy ideal, because it would require total state control over its citizens’ lives. Liberty has meaning only if we still believe in it when terrible things happen and a false government security blanket beckons.”

    “America was founded by men who understood that the threat of domestic tyranny is as great as any threat from abroad. If we want to be worthy of their legacy, we must resist the rush toward ever-increasing state control of our society. Otherwise, our own government will become a greater threat to our freedoms than any foreign terrorist.”

    The words in quotations are courtesy of Ron Paul. Throw off the labels which blind you… the shackles which bind you… and realize that – whether you’re  of the Left or the Right in the political spectrum – we’ve all been had.
    Hope you can watch the debate.



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