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.