Some readers may be incapable of getting beyond the title of this article. How in the world can anyone defend politicians and politics? It’s easy and, I would argue, necessary.
One recent study found that Americans rank politicians lower than cockroaches. I hope Americans are expressing their frustration with politicians, but not their actual sentiments. Would you really prefer a houseful of cockroaches to a few politicians?
For 35 years I would introduce my students to politics by claiming politics came from the Greek word “poly” meaning “many many,” and “tics” meaning “ugly bloodsucking parasites.” It was always good for a laugh, and no one ever disagreed.
Americans probably hold politicians and politics in lower esteem than at any point in American history, but it was not always that way. Politics was once a noble endeavor and held in high esteem.
One of President John F. Kennedy‘s favorite books was “Pilgrims Way” by John Buchan. Buchan, a member of Parliament, wrote that “Public life is regarded as the crown of a career, and to young men, it is the worthiest ambition. Politics is still the greatest and most honorable adventure.”
How did politics fall from “the greatest and most honorable adventure,” to ranking below cockroaches? Polarization, hypocrisy and corruption are three primary factors associated with the decline of politics.
Where politicians used to work together to solve the nation’s most pressing problems, the growing polarization means that compromise has been discarded as a political principle. Compromise is seen as weakness and an evil. Anyone willing to work with the other party is viewed as a traitor and will face opposition within his own party in the next election.
For over a half-century, the Gallup Poll has conducted a Partisan Polarization Index to measure the degree of polarization. From the Eisenhower to Carter administration, the index averaged 34 points. That meant that Republicans and Democrats rated their party’s president 34 points higher than the president of the other party.
From the Reagan to the George W. Bush Administration, the polarization index climbed to 55 points. More Republicans and Democrats saw their party’s president as better than that of the other party.
During the Obama administration, the Index skyrocketed to 82 points. Almost all Democrats viewed Obama positively and almost all Republicans viewed Obama negatively. The Gallup Poll has not had sufficient time to release an index for President Trump, but I think no one expects that the polarization index will decline.
Hypocrisy is a second factor in the declining view of politics. Every Republican in the House and all but three Republicans in the Senate opposed Obama‘s American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, but over 100 Republicans sought funds from that stimulus program.
President Obama and the Democrats attacked the George W. Bush administration for its secrecy and they promised the most transparent administration in history. According to Jill Abramson, executive editor of The New York Times, the Obama administration was “the most secretive White House” she had covered.
A third factor in the declining view of politics is corruption. While corruption and politics often go hand in hand, it seems to many that corruption has completely dominated contemporary politics. Most Americans see corruption as the standard operating procedure of politics.
It is easy to blame everything on politicians, but the American public most share the blame. It is the public who has elected and re-elected these polarizing, hypocritical and corrupt politicians to office.
For over a quarter of a century, Florida voters have elected Alcee Hastings as their member of Congress despite the fact that he was impeached and removed from his position as a U.S. District Court judge for accepting bribes and committing perjury. We reap what we sow.
Politics has made important contributions to our nation. In fact, our nation would not exist if it was not for the political efforts of those who opposed the tyranny of the Crown.
Without politics, we would not have our constitution, over which they were great divisions. We would not have ended slavery and kept the nation united without politics. We would not have triumphed over the horrors of fascism in World War II or communism in the Cold War without a united political effort.
Those who denigrate politics and politicians do so at their own peril. There are still many problems that need to be overcome, and all of them will require political solutions.
As Bernard Crick wrote in his book over 50 years ago, “politics does not claim to solve every problem or to make every sad heart be glad,” but where politics is strong, ” it can prevent the vast cruelties and deceits of ideological rule.”
Darryl Paulson is Emeritus Professor of Government at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg specializing in Florida politics and elections.