America's Image of Politicians: Why Do We Hate Them?


Do psychiatrists still use word-association techniques with their patients? You know what I mean: Dr. Jungfreud says "food" and the patient says "mother," the doctor says "girls" and the patient says "mother," the doctor says "father" and the patient says "mother," and they end up realizing that the patient has a hang-up with his mother.

I don't know what psychiatrists do nowadays, but I sometimes do a little word-association on the first day of my introductory American government classes at Rhodes College. The first word I say is "politics" and you should hear what my students come back with. Not "mother."

"Corrupt," they say, "dirty," "games-playing," "ego trip," "a waste." (The nicest thing I heard the last time I did this was "boring"). Here is how they respond to "politician:" selfish, ambitious, mediocre, unprincipled.

The teacher in me wants to despair when students associate words like these with politics.

I know, as did Aristotle, that politics is a vital and potentially noble human activity.

I know that politics was at the heart of our birth as a nation. (The founding fathers can be described in many ways, but no description will be accurate if you leave out the word politician.

I know that politics was the vehicle that integrated generations of our immigrant ancestors into the mainstream of American society. The job on the city road crew that my German grandfather got from the Frank Hague machine in Jersey City is the reason that my father and then I were later able to build careers of our own in the private sector.

And I know that it's politics that secures the basic freedoms that allow my students to say the critical things they say about politics.

The teacher in me also hopes that, as the semester wears on, the more students learn about the American political system -- warts and all -- the less cynical and indifferent they will become. A democracy can accommodate many things in its people -- passion, ambition, selfishness, even corruption -- but it cannot // long endure on a foundation of public cynicism and indifference, especially among the best-educated.

But that's the teacher in me. The political scientist in me is interested in understanding my students' initial attitudes toward politics and politicians. After all, these are the attitudes that they bring in from the world, having breathed them in at home, at their high schools, with their friends, from the Zeitgeist.

Students arrive on my doorstep politically cynical and indifferent because the larger society is cynical and indifferent.

In 1992, for example, when pollsters asked a random sample of Americans questions like "How much of the time do you think you can trust the government in Washington to do the right thing?" and "Would you say the government is pretty much run by a few big interests looking out for themselves or that it is run for the benefit of all the people?," the share of respondents that gave cynical answers was anywhere from 15-59 percentage points greater than the share that gave trusting answers.

Compare these results to those from, say, 1964, when the share of people who gave trusting answers was much larger than the share that gave cynical answers, by a margin of 37-56 percentage points.

The data on voter turnout are equally disturbing. As recently as the early 1960s, the turnout rate in a typical presidential election was roughly two-thirds of the voting age population -- this at a time when millions of African-Americans were still disenfranchised in the South and when registering to vote was inconvenient for everyone.

Now, despite virtually full voting rights and registration procedures as easy as a visit to the mall, voter turnout is around half the voting age population, and we actually get excited when 55 percent vote, as they did in 1992. In midterm congressional and gubernatorial elections, about half the eligible voters used to turn out; now it's more like a third.

Why do Americans hate politics and politicians?

There is no scarcity of answers to this question. Last year being the 30th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy's assassination and the 25th anniversary of the assassinations of Robert F. Kennedy and of Martin Luther King Jr., much was made of the despair about politics that spread among our people after those brutal deaths.

Other explanations for our distrust and cynicism are grounded in the lies and half-truths our government told about the Vietnam War and about Watergate and all its many offspring: Koreagate, Irangate, Iraqgate, and, most recently, Whitewatergate, to name but a few.

The news media are another likely suspect -- remodeled network evening news programs that treat politics and government with a sneer, now joined by a new-style trash TV news shows and radio talk shows (Rush Limbaugh, can you hear me?) that are overtly hostile to politics and politicians.

On top of all that, professional political consultants use the media to air their increasingly negative campaign ads, the cumulative effect of which, some argue, is to convince Americans that all the candidates in all our elections are bums.

Still other explanations for our cynicism and indifference may be found in two recent and very thoughtful books by journalists.

E. J. Dionne of the Washington Post, in "Why Americans Hate Politics," blames the poverty of our prevailing political ideologies. "Liberalism and conservatism are framing political issues as a series of false choices," he writes. "On issue after issue, there is consensus [among the public] on where the country should move or at least what we should be arguing about; [but] liberalism and conservatism make it impossible for that consensus to express itself."

Most Americans agree, for example, that to help lift the underclass out of poverty will require some combination of government help and greater personal responsibility. But, Mr. Dionne argues, conservatives don't want to admit the need for government help, and liberals don't want tell poor people to take responsibility for their lives, so nothing gets done. The progress of welfare reform in Washington will provide a good test of how far the political process has come on this issue.

Another journalist, Alan Ehrenhalt, turns his gaze to the politicians in a book called "The United States of Ambition." Mr. Ehrenhalt, who is the editor of Governing magazine, argues that running for and serving in political office has become so time-consuming and demanding that only people who are willing to become full-time politicians can do it.

Pernicious effects flow from this modern fact of political life. The talent pool from which leaders are drawn has narrowed -- it now excludes the business or professional person (much less the blue-collar or pink-collar worker) who could spare some time for public service but not abandon a career to do so.

The talent pool also includes many more liberals than conservatives. Liberals, after all, like government and are more likely to be drawn to it on a full-time basis. And with politics as their vocation, those who are elected in the modern era feel compelled to do everything they can to stay in office.

All of these explanations of why Americans hate politics and politicians have three things in common:

First, they all point the blame away from the American people and fix it on somebody else -- politicians, political consultants, the media, liberals, conservatives, assassins and so on. (How convenient for us.)

Second, they are all ahistorical, grounded almost entirely in recent events and developments.

Third, they are all partial explanations -- accurate, especially in explaining why anti-politician feelings are higher now than ever, but accurate only to a degree. In truth, there has never been a time when Americans were pro-politics and pro-politicians.

Historically, the United States has lagged far behind other Western democracies in the development and extent of a welfare state. The American approach has been to regulate businesses rather than nationalize them. Political ideologies that exalt government -- from fascism to communism -- simply have not taken root in American soil; we're the only leading Western country in which socialists were never able to form a leading political party. We seem to be anti-political in our very bones.

Clearly, another piece needs to be added to the great jigsaw puzzle that, once assembled, can tell us why Americans hate politics and politicians. This new piece would be a picture of us -- of "we the people" -- and not just of us in this generation but us through all the generations that constitute

the history of the United States. The label on the new piece would read: "American political culture."

Deeply rooted in American political culture -- that is, in us -- is the belief that government ought to work in accordance with "higher law," some ultimate standard of right.

The belief in higher law in manifest in our practice of inscribing our ideals into public policy. What is every American's cry in response to any perceived pattern of injustice?: "There ought to be a law."

Even Ice T, the "gangsta" rapper, bespeaks the higher-law ideal in his book called "The Ice Opinion: Who Gives a [Darn]?" (That's the G-rated version of his R-rated title). Here's what he says: "I have the right under God to say anything I want to say from my heart that comes out of my mouth. . . . I am a human being, put this earth, and I can say any [blankety-blank] thing I want."

But Americans don't just believe in higher law. They also believe that their political system ought to operate in accordance with popular sovereignty, meaning that government rests on the consent of the governed ("government of the people") and that government is supposed to work in accordance with what the public wants ("government by the people").

The belief in popular sovereignty not only infuses virtually every political writing of the founding period, but it forms the philosophical foundation of the Constitution itself: "We the people . . . do ordain and establish this Constitution of the United States of America." (One could call this sentence the Genesis 1:1 of our political scripture.)

Since 1787, the belief in popular sovereignty has manifested itself in an endless and, by the standards of other Western nations, radical series of democratic reforms: universal suffrage; direct election of senators, presidential electors, and, in many states, judges, school boards, sheriffs, clerks, trustees, and commissioners; primaries, initiatives, referendums, recalls, and so on -- the people are asked to speak authoritatively in so many ways.

It also underlies Americans' widely shared expectations of members of Congress and other legislators, who we insist should vote in accordance with our wishes, not with their own judgments as to what is best.

Matters grow especially interesting when these two values from our political culture are laid alongside each other, which is what most of us do, without thinking very much about it.

Let's review the bidding. As Americans, we believe that government is supposed to work according to higher law -- a fixed, external, eternal standard of right that is embodied in our Constitution. We also believe that it's supposed to work according to what the people want -- popular sovereignty.

An obvious problem arises. Which standard is supposed to prevail when the higher law and what the people want are not the same? Never fear -- Americans pride them selves on being great problem-solvers. And one of the most effective strategies rTC for dealing with problems is to pretend that they do not exist.

That's what we've done in this case. Vox populi, vox dei -- the voice of the people is the voice of God. That doctrine provides a very convenient way for us to continue to believe that popular sovereignty never conflicts with the higher law.

And the doctrine endures, as reflected in comparative studies of civic competence and social trust in a number of Western democracies. To a far greater extent than Britons, Germans, Austrians, the Dutch, Mexicans, Italians and French, Americans have been found to feel personally competent to participate intelligently in politics and to trust each other to do the same. In short, we see no contradiction between government of the people and by the people, and government for the people.

Americans also revere the Constitution. Ask a random sample of Europeans (as political scientists have done) what they are proudest of about their country and they are likely to mention its physical beauty or cultural achievements. Ask Americans the same question and they will describe their form of government -- democracy, freedom, "all men are created equal," etc.

When Americans travel to Washington with their families (which most who can afford to do so eventually do), they are making pilgrimages of a sort. They visit the city's sacred shrines to Lincoln, Washington, Jefferson, Kennedy and our fallen soldiers. They gaze upon its sacred texts, the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence. They visit its temples of law and democracy -- the Supreme Court, the Capitol, the White House. Their attitude is serious, even reverential.

Why, then, do Americans hate politics and politicians? We hate them because we have left ourselves no alternative. When things go wrong, as most people think they have in our political system, we have no one else to blame.

We can't blame the Constitution for what's wrong -- far from it, it is our embodiment of higher law. And we certainly are not about to blame ourselves. And so we blame the only people who are left -- our politicians.

And they, wanting to please us, are only too happy to confirm us in our beliefs by pointing their own fingers of blame at each other.

Michael Nelson is professor of political science at Rhodes College in Memphis, Tenn.

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