The Paradox of Politics


November 06, 1994|By BRIAN SULLAM

Most of us have unrealistic expectations when it comes to politicians. That probably explains why elected officials never fail to disappoint us.

We expect them to be leaders but punish them when they are ahead of their time.

We want them to cut government spending, but we don't want them to cut the programs that benefit us.

We want them to eliminate regulation, but we all want the consumer, environmental, occupational and commercial laws that protect us from con men, polluters, exploiters and price gougers.

We love confrontational politicians but detest legislative gridlock.

We want them to elevate the public discourse, yet we vote for the candidates who pander to our basest beliefs and fears.

We want a society free of crime, yet we support politicians who have lied to Congress, used cocaine, misused public money and violate the public trust.

L We want them to devise simple solutions to complex problems.

We expect them to make perfect an imperfect world.

Maybe it's time to take a more realistic perspective on politicians and elected officials. We first have to recognize that our elected officials are just mirror images of ourselves.

In this campaign, politicians are quick to reflect the public's frustration, dislike, contempt and hostility toward all forms of government. This open antagonism against the very institutions they want to occupy -- a contradictory position if ever there was one -- demonstrates how well they mirror public opinion. The glorification of ignorance and inexperience is a pervasive theme at all levels of this campaign.

Take a close look and listen to some of the political ads appearing in the newspapers or flashing across the television screen.

Candidates are tripping over themselves to let people know they are not "professional" politicians. One definition of professional is "engaged in, or worthy of high standards." Do we want candidates interested in meeting only low standards?

Will inexperienced and ignorant politicians help us tackle problems such as a growing and festering underclass, poorly educated high school graduates who can't find work and an criminal justice system that can't dispense justice. No one would look for the most inexperienced doctor to perform open heart surgery, yet we seem enthusiastic about the prospect of people who haven't participated in public life deciding important issues for the general public.

The other troubling aspect of the current political season is that politicians are proud to be taking the low road. What is one to

make of an ad where the candidate and his wife

say, "We are politically incorrect and proud of it?"

Does that mean Tim Ferguson, the GOP candidate for state Senate in Maryland's Fourth District, wants to be the opposite of politically correct? Does that mean he wants to be seen as small-minded, intolerant, spiteful and disrespectful?

Although the public has voted into office many politicians with those deplorable characteristics, politicians have rarely advertised with pride those character traits.

Why do so few politicians today say they are honest, thoughtful, tolerant, accommodating and open-minded? Are those qualities we no longer want in elected officials? If so, we are self-destructing. We will have a government of elected officials who take unyielding positions, build their reputations by tearing down others' and attend to the needs of special interests.

In the end, we will have a government that won't work well and one we won't like.

Lucky for us, democracy seems to be a self-righting process. After swinging too far to one side, we always seem to swing back to the center.

For that to happen, we need elected officials who know when and where to compromise. Democracy is best served by people who occupy the political middle ground. Having a handful of ideologues in a legislative body is tolerable; an entire legislature of hard-liners means trouble.

This enmity toward elected officials and the government institutions that have generally served our communities will pass.

Two decades ago when the resignation of then-Vice President Spiro Agnew and the Watergate scandal devastated the Republican Party, Sen. Dan Inouye, a Democratic senator from Hawaii and member of the Senate Watergate Committee, was asked at a community meeting whether the GOP was full of crooks.

"They are no more crooked that the rest of us," he said. "The people of that party are businessmen, professionals, farmers, secretaries, factory workers and public employees. Their values reflect our values. They are no better or no worse than we are."

Tuesday, voters will select the people who will run Maryland, manage Carroll's county government and represent it in the General Assembly and Congress. We can only hope they cast their ballots for those candidates who represent the best of us and not the worst.

Brian Sullam is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Carroll County.

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