A story about politicians
This is a story I've wanted told for a long time. I think it is a story worth reading, even if you do not necessarily agree with its conclusions because I think it offers an interesting alternate view of our politicians.
The thing is, this isn't really /my/ story to tell. Rather, it is a recounting of various conversations I have had with a friend? (Peer? Acquaintance? A guy I did business and with whom I had some interesting discussions.) While I myself have had little contact with politicians, this gentleman has, and over several years he has shared some of his insights on them; how they think and why they do the things they do. I've actually asked him to come here and share these thoughts with the people on Slashdot, but he has always demurred. Partly - although he has never said so in as many words - because he doesn't think it's worth his bother talking with IT geeks on a tiny, fairly inconsequential website but mostly because he values his discretion and feels that were he to make a public statement it might be traced back to him and reflect badly not only on him but on the people for whom he works. On the other hand, I have mentioned that I intended to share his thoughts - properly anonymized - and he didn't seem too upset about it.
So who is this gentleman? I guess the best description for him would be an "Aide" or "Secretary", although I recall him once self-effacingly describing himself as an "incredibly overpaid intern" and a "go-fer". He is one of those mostly faceless people who work with our politicians, actually going and and doing most of the things they order. His tasks have varied from simply mundane chores as fetching coffee, to meeting and negotiating with other power brokers, to helping read and write bills his patron intended to back. He himself has no official rank and his position has varied over the years, but it probably would not be too far off the mark to consider him second behind his master. He has worked for politicians on both sides of the Aisle - although he tends to favor those on the Left - and has over the years worked with politicos of all levels, from local government, to state legislative, to members of Congress. It's allowed him to garner an interesting viewpoint of the hows and whys of government.
I met this gentleman many years ago when he needed assistance with some IT work. It was a very brief professional acquaintance, but over the years we have kept in touch; he often reached out to me to answer a quick IT-related question. Over the years we have had a number of chats and he told a number of interesting anecdotes - all sanitized of names to protect the innocent - and it's from these discussions that I have distilled the following insights. I will be the first to admit that my friend has his own biases and - like most of us, works in his own bubble - but I think that's partly what makes these stories so interesting. You might not agree with his conclusions or argue that he is defending the indefensible, but I think he was being honest. I - like many here - tend to revile our political leaders, thinking them all untrustworthy and corrupt, waffling on important issues, indebted to corporate masters, etc. These tales offer a different light on thing. It's all going to be a bit stream-of-consciousness, I'm afraid, as I remember things he told me, but I hope you find it interesting as well.
One of the first insights he gave me was that most politicians tend to enter into the game because they have one issue they really care about. Maybe some of them have two, or even rarely three, but - whether it is gun-control, or military spending or health care, pushing that issue is usually the primary force behind not only their entry into politics but also the reason they stay in politics and keep pushing up the ladder seeking positions of more power and authority. They want their issue to succeed, and they keep reaching upwards in hopes of not only getting it achieved, but also - if they are successful - ensuring that it won't be rolled back. They are rarely too strongly concerned with other issues, even if they are major planks of their party's platform (or even their own stated platforms); it's the ONE issue they really care about. Thus, they are quite willing to compromise on these other issues if they feel it will strengthen their chosen belief (and - oddly enough - they are even willing to sacrifice that chosen issue temporarily if they feel that in the long run it will strengthen their end-goal). They would quite willing deal with the opposition on lesser issues if it would allow them to push the issue they really cared about A big part of the political game, he explained, was figuring out what that major issue was for each politician because once you knew that, you had a handle on him. A lot of what ordinary people saw as waffling or ignoring issues or capitulating to corporate interests were often done because the politician in question felt that - by doing so - he could further his own chosen issue, the one he felt was most important. These officials felt so strongly about it -felt that getting their issue passed was so important to the weal of the nation - that they were willing to sacrifice other issues. It wasn't about corruption or malfeasance; it was just that the officials had /different priorities/.
Of course, in order to get that issue resolved, the politician had to stay in power, and that's not easy. There's already been a lot of discussion elsewhere about how much time politicians have to spend working their election campaigns, gaining support and donations. My colleague suggested that maybe 40% of an official's time was spent on working for donations - either for his own behalf or for his party - with the other 40% being spent dealing with local issues (which surprisingly are usually very small-scale complaints from his constituents, of the "the local garbage men only pick up once a week" sort, which the official usually has very little direct say over but he can sometimes lean on the local government to do something), with the remaining 20% being used to actually, you known, govern. But a major issue that every politician faces is the loss of jobs in his district, and this is always one he takes very seriously.
Even a small loss of jobs - say the closing of an office with 50 employees - can have wide-spread effect, especially if the district isn't very densely populated. Not only do those 50 people directly employees lose their jobs, but the janitorial staff that keeps the office cleaned will probably get cut, and there will be less deliveries from local business, so more jobs might be lost, and because people have lost their jobs, they will be buying less, so that affects the economy even more, rippling outwards. And people blame their representatives when their economy goes to shit. Thus, when a corporation comes to a politician and says something like, "hey, there's this recent bill that's going to raise our costs by 4% - because it's a tariff, or because it adds extra procedural regulation, or whatever - and I'm afraid that means we're going to have to close our operations in your district", even if it is a tiny operation, you can bet the politician is going to take notice and start compromising to keep that bill from passing (or at least neuter it enough) so that corporation isn't going to close shop. Because if they do, it could cost him the election and then his BIG ISSUE - the one he really gives a damn about - is threatened.
That's when the wheeling-n-dealing begins; that's when Republicans vote for more gun control and Democrats vote to cut back on public education.
Mind you, despite the impression we all have of our politicians, it's rarely open corruption; large corporations almost never say, "hey, here's this bill we want passed, vote for us and we'll give you election money, or a high-paying consultancy gig after you leave office, or even an open bribe"; 99% of the time, it's "this bill is going to cost your constituents jobs". And they bend over because they don't really care about most of that stuff, they care about their ISSUE. It's what pork is all about; it's a hate but necessary part of the job.
Here's another thing. Politicians have no power, or far less than most people think they do, and they themselves certainly feel powerless most of the time. They feel consistently stymied by... well, everyone; local government, the bureaucracy, their higher ups. They can give an order "this must be done!" but it is passed through so many layers - often through people that disagree with their decisions - that even though the command is obeyed, it is done haphazardly, or slow, or done in a way that nuanced and neutralized the action to the point where it is like nothing was done (the military, apparently, is great at this). And more often than not, they don't actually have the authority to get something done by fiat, by simple order; at best, they can nudge, influence, threaten. "If you don't push to fix this lady's garbage problem, then I'm going to vote against funding for YOUR issue". But there is constantly a sense that if they just get to the NEXT level of power - local government to state legislature, state legislature to governor or congress, first-term representative to senior, /THEN/ they'll actually be able to get things (read: their ISSUE) done. But it never really seems to help and - my friend suspects - this feeling goes up to the highest levels, that even the President feels that "if only I had stayed in Congress, maybe I could have been speaker of the house and then... THEN I'd shake things up" (and the speaker feels the same way towards the presidency). So the politicians are constantly pushing, trying to gain support and money, to make it up to the next level so they finally have the authority they need to fix the country.
This leads to a related problem: the belief (both among the politicians and - more commonly - among their constituents) that a problem can be fixed NOW, and if it isn't, then it is because the politician isn't trying. Electricity costs too much? Just pass a bill that makes the companies charge less; how hard can that be, right? Except a) nothing is ever that simple, b) "passing a bill" itself is a long, long process, and c) it probably won't fix things anyway. True change - true fixes - can take years or even decades. Few politicians have that sort of staying power, and unless it's THEIR issue they won't concentrate on it for that long anyway. So what happens is that either nothing is done or a half-hearted "something must be done, this is something, so this is what we'll do" bills get pushed through and the problem doesn't get fixed (or, more likely, gets worse). But a lot of this is because everyone involved has a simplistic way of looking at the world and refuse - for a variety of reasons - to allow people the time to work things properly. It's a "do it now" attitude that screws us over again and again... and usually it takes until the problem is so big that it becomes THE ISSUE for a lot of politicians who are willing to sacrifice all other issues to get it fixed (health care seems to be of these now)
The political parties? They hate them, probably more than we do. Firstly, they demand a lot of time from the officials, far more than they are worth, it often seems. A lot of time is spent working the phones on behalf of the Party, begging donations, which never seems to come back to them. The parties also have big platforms with lots of issues - 99% of which the official doesn't really care about but has to show at least some loyalty towards if they hope to benefit from the party's political clout. And it's yet another layer of bureaucracy they have to deal with, another group which nominally works towards their benefit but doesn't actually listen to them.
They hate the complexity of the laws too. We've all read stories about laws essentially written by corporations, or laws that get passes even though nobody reads them and - my friend admits - yes, that happens. Nobody wants it to happen, but these bills are so complex - and often needfully so, because the issues are complex and you need to hammer down all exigencies - and they keep changing as they are revised and added to. Often they entrust their aides - my friend included - to read these things and simplify them down for them because they just don't have the time and - yes, because often they aren't that concerned if the bill doesn't affect their ISSUE - but mostly our lawmakers try to keep abreast of things, even though it is ultimately an impossible task (remember, 80% of their time is either spent dealing with their future campaign or handling local affairs). They trust their people, and those people often trust (so-called) experts and sometimes that backfires on them.
The bureaucracy of the government is, as I said, a constant issue but not necessarily one they consider a major problem; as much as it slows down things for them, it also slows down their opponents. Nonetheless, it was suggested that one reason that privatization was so popular was because it was a way for the officials and lawmakers to bypass the bureaucracy by essentially handling a task to a company that - nominally - would then be indebted to the lawmaker (and thus Do What I Say when the official gave an order). It rarely worked out that way - and in the long run usually bit the official in the ass - but it was a very appealing short-cut to many.
Corruption? My colleague steadfastly argued that this was overblown. Certainly there were some bad apples (and most politicians apparently knew exactly who they were and who they were beholden to; needless to say, I didn't get any names ;-) and nobody in office was against some "polite" feathering of the nest, but this was mostly along the lines of pushing for a bill that would allow, say, larger mansions to be built in a neighborhood the official was interested in building himself a nice big house. Nothing so uncouth as taking direct moneys or aid from anyone in exchange for favors; just setting up a situation where the official could take advantage (but so could anyone else who was paying attention). And even then, discretion was called for; politicians who appeared to greedy probably wouldn't be called out on it but it would cost them political points; their party wouldn't back them as strongly, they might not get called on for the good committees, and all their peers would be watching them more closely. Corporate bribery was even more rare, although - he suggested - this might be more because the CORPORATIONS saw no profit in it; they had enough hold on the politicians just by threatening jobs. Yes, corporations donated thousands and millions to political campaigns, but with the really big money the corporations pretty much gave to BOTH sides just to cover their bets. These donations created more a sense of indebtedness to the political parties than the candidates. If - I was informed, and here was really the only time I heard true and vehement disdain in my colleague's voice - I wanted to see REAL out-n-out corruption then I needed look no further than my local government. That's where the real crime and vice was happening and the "real" politicians apparently looked down on local government as being not much better than what you'd find in some third-world country.
Oh, I feel like there's so much more I could say (even though at the moment I'm drawing a blank on what more I could add). Still, the general feeling I always got from these discussions was that my friend believed very strongly that - in the end - our politicians (local government aside) were well-meaning people who had strongly-held beliefs about what it took to make the country better, and were in office to further those beliefs more than to better their own position. But the fact is that the government is so big and our politicians are, ultimately, only human; at best, they could only nudge it, and often only by sacrificing everything except their chosen issue to do so. They try to be as honest as they can but the situation of things too often makes this impossible - either because it would cost them their Issue or because things - and their position on things - keep changing (all the more so since nowadays we seem to demand simplistic sound bites for complex problems)
How accurate is all of this? I am personally in no position to confirm any of this; I do think it is a different way of looking at our lawmakers rather than seeing them just as "the fat pigs up in Washington". As I said, my colleague certainly has his own biases; he works with these people every day, sees them as friends, probably unconsciously whitewashes some of their actions because of it. But is that any worse than our broadly tarring the lot of them in ignorance? The truth is -as always - probably somewhere in between.
What can we take away from this? Well, I think the the big one - the one that was consistently stressed by my colleague - was that we should all try and learn what each candidate's "big issue" was, which admittedly will rarely be clearly stated (and sometimes might not be a stated platform at all, if it runs contrary to his constituency's or parties beliefs). But never expect a candidate to support a broad platform; there's going to be one or two things he really supports, and all other issues he will wheel-n-deal on to push the main ones forward. I think he had a bit of disdain for voters who didn't really do the work to try to understand this, which I personally think is a bit unfair although I can sort of see his point. Furthermore, don't assume everything a politician does that you don't agree with is due to corruption; more often, it is a sacrifice made to further a politician's chosen issue, or because the problem is too complex. It almost never is "because this will help me get more money for my next election". And don't trust local government in the least, because more than anyone else they are the ones affecting - and screwing - your day-to-day lives.
Anyway, I hope this was an enlightening take on things. I know it came across a bit messy but it definitely made me take a new look at my lawmakers and now I try to see them not so much as greedy corporate pawns but perhaps - perhaps! - as overworked but generally good-intentioned (if still flawed) humans who are trying to better their country. It might be a bit idealistic and I myself do not entirely believe it but it is good to have another way of looking at things, and I hope you feel the same way.