When I ran for State House in 2011, the one question I got more often than any other while I was out knocking doors was “why would anybody run for office?”
Note: this question wasn’t “why are you running for office?” And it was usually paired with a shake of the head, as if to ask “are you crazy?” Sometimes, I was asked if I was crazy. My usual response was a laugh and – depending on how many doors I’d knocked that day so far – usually “yes.” Granted, I wasn’t crazy enough to appear at campaign rallies with a boot on my head, but still.
It’s easy to understand why anybody would think that – just ask the folks who’ve run. Politics has never been for the faint of heart. That’s why it’s so rare for anybody to actually choose to run. A recently released Pew Research study puts the total number of Americans who have run for public office at a whopping 2%.
Why is that number so low?
Have Americans stopped wanting to participate in government? Are we giving up on democracy and our republican form of government? Is it apathy?
I don’t think it’s any of those things. I think the reason so few people choose to run for office these days is because we have made the process of running one of the most awful, humiliating, degrading and physically demanding things anybody can do.
The examples are all around us. The internet, social media, blogs, and our voyeuristic culture have made running for office a living hell. The anonymity of the web, the ubiquitous comments sections, and a disturbing lack of humanity in many people make running for office unthinkable to so many of the people we need in public life.
Today, you can rest assured that if you run for office, people are going to mock you for just about everything – if you’re attractive, your head will be photoshopped onto a porn star’s body. If you’re overweight, you’ll get some folks who just call you fat, others will write long articles worrying about if you’re healthy enough for a long campaign (that’s just the erudite way of calling someone fat today). If you’re a lawyer, you’ll be blamed for representing unsavory clients. If you’re a businessman and successful, be prepared to be attacked for it. You’ll be hit twice as hard if you fail at business (Grant and Truman can speak to this one). Work for the government, and you’re a parasite sucking on the taxpayer or you’ve never had a real job. They’ll dig up every piece of dirt on you they can, from 20 year old college term papers to that one party you threw that was a little risque. Your personal life will no longer be private. Everything is fair game, because everything nowadays says something about your “character,” or “the public needs to know who they are hiring.” Everybody has a camera, every statement you make will be recorded, and if you step out of line, lose your temper, or fatigue sets in and you make a mistake, the chances of it going viral are pretty good.
Everything – literally, everything – you do will be criticized. Where you went to school, what you drive, what your children do, where they go to school, your faith, even what you do in what little free time you have. You made a joke on Facebook – that’s offensive. The funnier the joke, the more offensive it will be. Besides, why do you have time to be on Facebook anyway? Shouldn’t you be campaigning?
If that wasn’t enough to deter almost everybody, it gets worse. Imagine what happens now if you win. Be prepared for the newest craze – the criminalization of politics.
The examples are everywhere. Republican presidential candidates are getting hit left and right with investigations and indictments. Bob McDonnell is an obvious example. Rick Perry gets indicted for exercising a valid constitutional prerogative of the Governor of Texas – his veto power. Chris Christie, Scott Walker – the list of criminal investigations against politicians is growing longer every month with no end in sight. And this is true at every level. Just look at the bogus investigations of Shaun Kenney, spun up by political opponents.
It’s not right. Not only have we made it unthinkable for many people to ever seek office, we’re going after the ones we do and threatening them with jail time if they anger the wrong people.
This is a dangerous path we are on. We are actively deterring good people from ever wanting to do these jobs.
Let me put it this way: if you believe that all politicians are dirtbags and you treat anybody who runs for office like a dirtbag, you can’t very well turn around and complain when only dirtbags choose to run for office.
Our system of government only works when the people are engaged, good people step up and serve, and the voters are given a choice between qualified people who both care but simply have different philosophies or policy plans. It doesn’t work when we are constantly forced to choose the lesser of two evils.
We can’t fix this by passing a law – it’s going to take each and every one of us stepping back, stopping the vitriol and putting ourselves in the shoes of the people we see on the news and read about online. It’s going to take us being willing to admit that candidates for office are just regular people like the rest of us, doing something that 98% of the population refuses to do and will never do. Instead of making that process harder, we should respect it and try to give these folks the benefit of the doubt.
If we continue to make running for office so awful that only somebody who is truly crazy will do it, we’ll have no one to blame but ourselves when the result is dysfunctional government, corruption and incompetence.