Sunday, January 9, 2011


I've been holding off on this blog for several months in order to distance myself from when the events happened. This is mainly to keep the confidentiality of all involved... the conversation that inspired this post was over drinks in friendly conversation. But, especially after reading the reactions to yesterday's shooting of a congresswoman in Arizona, I think it's time.

During my travels in 2010, I found myself in a chat with some friends, one of whom is something of a big shot on the staff of a high-profile politician (you've likely heard of this politician). Names, locations, party affiliation... even the level of government isn't important, because I'm pretty sure what this person told me applies to everyone running for office above your local town council.

This person is interesting... has worked on various national/local campaigns and has, somehow, been in the middle of some very interesting political events. In all posts, this person has been successful.

But what this person said reinforced something I had been concerned about, but was perhaps too idealistic to believe: the simple goal for politicians, I was told, is to win. Not to save the whales, lower your taxes. Win.

Winning brings prestige to an individual. Dollars to municipalities (and, indirectly via book deals and speaking engagements, to the politician). This all makes sense and would be fine if coupled with a genuine effort to help the people.

What is troubling is that this person told me the entire platform of the candidate's recent campaign wasn't based on what was best for the people... it was based on what the people would pull a lever for in the short term. Long-term, holistic goals don't get votes, this person told me. An example was this year's anti-Washington, anti-tax sentiment among a major group of voters. While a larger discussion of our economy might be needed, this person instead helped craft a platform that matched those flash-point messages... and found ways to paint the opponent as the polar opposite.

I admitted this was good campaign strategy, but I expressed that I felt that sort of platform was counterproductive to a sustainable economy in the long term. I mean, someone has to pay for roads and schools, right?

The person conceded the point that the current rhetoric is absolutely counterproductive to long-term economic health, but that I was missing the point. The goal isn't to fix the big problems... the goal is for the candidate to win. Voters wanted to hear the popular messaging rather than get into any sort of real discussion about the long term.

Bottom line, this person's candidate won in the election. Goal achieved.

So here we are, mired in debate about the right way forward in our country. Perhaps, the "vitriol" of that debate has led to a congresswoman shot in the head.

But if the goal isn't to move the country one way or the other, but instead to win elections, the joke is on us. We get worked up... for what?

To me, this just underscores the idea of needing a well-educated electorate. An accountable electorate. One that thinks to the long term in the balance with the short term and takes the time to really see through the consequences of pieces of legislation.

As long as politicians are able to win based on the moods of the population at a given moment in time instead of thought-out policy, there will be no change, on either side of the aisle.


A.J. said...

The only thing that will help this is to get rid of professional politicians, but the professional politicians would have to vote on this. And that will never happen...obviously.

Jay said...

I'm really starting to think we need term limits... and maybe even consider making congress not a full-time job. We need people with good ideas, the ability to compromise... but not necessary making their living doing so.