“Anyone can succumb to ideology. All it takes is a sense of one’s own moral superiority for being on the right side; a theory that purports to explain everything; and — this is crucial — a principled refusal to see things from the point of view of one’s opponents or victims, lest one be tainted by their evil viewpoint.”
— Gary Saul Morson, The New Criterion, “How The Great Truth Dawned” (2019)
One of the funny things about meeting politicians is the fawning that most of us do over them. For myself — having elected a few and worked for many others — you come to realize that there is a distinction between their role as a public figure and their personality that is about as wide a gulf as any canyon or valley.
In short, how they present themselves is far different from how they are presented by their opposition, and even more different than how they actually are in person. Believe me — they are far more interesting as human beings rather than off brand demigods, I assure you.
Most human beings don’t have the courage to become a politician. Imagine taking your entire self — all of it — and placing your life’s work, reputation, family, your hopes and dreams and aspirations, and most of all your vision for what could go better among your friends and neighbors and cupping that together in your two hands and offering it heart and soul to others.
Now imagine someone spending thousands if not millions of dollars trying to smack that out of your hands, showing your friends and neighbors that you are more fraud than visionary, and worse a villain to every human being you meet. Imagine your own family having to read the accusations and slanders, imagine reading on social media or in the letters to the editor what your neighbors really think of you — words they would never express in person, but given just a little bit of distance and an appropriate dose of the partisan, will be more than happy to repeat on social media, in supermarkets, at church and even among your own family relations.
Imagine putting your entire self up for public consideration. And losing.
For precisely half of the candidates you see running for public office in the Fredericksburg area, this will be their reality the Wednesday after the election after having offered their entire selves to a campaign which three weeks prior they knew whether they were winning or losing.
Any human being willing to run for public office would either be brave or stupid and perhaps a little of both. Courageous might be one word; self-absorbed and narcissistic might be terms used during the campaign. Rare is the politician who can learn the secret to political power, namely, the definition of enough.
The politician in the wild is an odd creature indeed. Younger versions tend to love the adulation and believe that they themselves have something unique to offer to their community as a steppingstone to higher office and always ever higher office. Middle aged versions tend to view public office in a much more jaded take-or-leave sense, something they desperately want but feign disinterest so as not to take the psychological hit of losing too terribly. Older politicians tend to view themselves as the ever-reliable guidepost of an old tradition which — once the fire goes out — makes them the last of their kind.
Most Americans tend to view their politicians as corrupt and malleable, telling us what they want to hear in pursuit of one goal: power. Power attracts the corruptible. God forbid such politicians expose themselves to the drug of transparency, which means becoming an open target for the malcontents and the bored. Superior breeds discover a means of remaining aloof so as not to be noticed in the press, yet just visible enough to be praised by the bureaucracy — who is always looking for a safe bet no matter what the politics of the present age.
Yet there is an old Churchillian observation which states that democracies elect the leaders we deserve. Once upon a time, Virginia could be graced by a George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison or James Monroe. This was all before Virginia washed down the flower of her youth down the gullet of war according to such bon mots as H.L. Mencken, the late editor of the Baltimore Sun who had little praise for the detritus of a once great pedigree.
For an electorate which heaps such contempt upon our own politicians, one might be led to wonder whether or not we are worthy of the Washingtons and Jeffersons among us today. After all, one can’t really blame the politicians for our troubles; blame the morons who keep electing them.
Even in saying that, perhaps the Fredericksburg area is luckier in our political class than we care to admit or realize. After all, it was not terribly long ago that the president of the Virginia State Senate hailed from this area. Nor was it too long ago that the Speaker of the House of Delegates hailed from the Fredericksburg area as well — a man whose accomplishments restoring the Virginia Retirement System to solvency are undersung and underpraised.
Nor is the Fredericksburg area bereft of seniority in either the House of Delegates or Virginia Senate. Neither are our local governments missing long-standing pillars of the community whose roots go back generations in this area despite the tidal wave of newcomers. Nor are these same newcomers absent from the halls of local power.
Fredericksburg is no stranger to leadership. In fact, our elected officials are expected to lead in Virginia and elsewhere.
What we are strangers to is ideology, or more accurately the uniparty totalitarianism which seems to have gripped our neighbors in Northern Virginia and rural Virginia. Here our debates are real. Here the great questions of growth and what Virginia will look like in 20 years are grappled with in real time.
Yet unlike most parts of Virginia, we have a wonderfully unique habit of looking at a question from all sides before we settle on a definitive answer. Our media demands it, our culture commands it, and our politics reflect this admixture of deliberation and speed. Believe it or not, we have something special in the Fredericksburg area when it comes to our politics.
And we are in danger of losing it.
No — it isn’t just to social media or the mirage of “non-partisanship” which is a perspective about as partisan and myopic as they come. Nor is it in the race for ideology over discussion. Rather, we begin to lose what makes Fredericksburg unique — the hands over the city, so to speak — when we reduce our politicians to labels such as Republican and Democrat (or even independent). The very moment we succumb to the dialectic of us against them, of good versus evil, and of friends over here contesting the enemy over there — we lose what is so special (and perhaps so frustrating) about who we are as Virginians.
Jefferson once remarked that he would rather attend to the problems of having too much liberty rather than grapple with the problem of not enough liberty. Politics can be a sordid thing, but especially when its electorate tolerates the sordid. When we engage our politicians as the friends and neighbors they are and throw off the political straightjackets, we tend to find out that we have really good reasons for approaching problems the way we do.
Will we always agree? Probably not. But will we at least continue to build upon an inheritance which views every problem created by people as something which can be solved by people? That’s noble — that’s us.
So as we engage our politicians this election season, remember a few things. These people had the guts to do what you and I wouldn’t. They too have families and hopes and aspirations and reasons why they want to represent us. More than anything, remember that what we reward says more about us than what it says about them. One hates to recall the words of the late Bertold Brecht:
Would it not in that case
Be simpler for the government
To dissolve the people
And elect another?
One might helpfully suggest that the way marketers and political consultants adn the bitterest individuals in our midst bend our political discourse and accomplish precisely this thing — rewarding bad actors and silencing thoughtful ones — while creating the mold by which certain politicians find it far easier to squish into at the low cost of one’s backbone.
So go easier on your friendly neighborhood politician this year. After all, the way we treat them and talk about what matters says more about us than it does about them.
SHAUN KENNEY is a columnist with the Fredericksburg Advance.