Is ‘Happy Politician’ an Oxymoron?

by Mike McCabe, Executive Director

July 14, 2009

The great Indian independence leader Mahatma Gandhi once said happiness is when what you think, what you say and what you do are in harmony.

By that measure, I can count the number of happy politicians I’ve met on one hand, with fingers to spare.

Most of the politicians I’ve encountered start out with good intentions, entering public office for mostly the right reasons. Then they start playing the game. And the game changes them.

One of the things I marvel at the most is how many of them seem largely unaware of how the game is changing them and how they are assimilating into the Capitol culture. It happens fast too. The stark difference between freshmen legislators and second-termers never ceases to amaze me.

I can’t imagine there is that big of a change in how they think. Maybe there is. But more likely, a disconnection develops between what they think and what they say and do. This disconnect is the taproot of corruption. Most politicians can’t see it. They’re steeped in all the same stereotypes of corrupt politicians as the rest of us are. They figure if they don’t look and act like Boss Tweed, they must be OK.

Therein lies the problem. Real corruption isn’t as black and white as you’d think. It is painted in countless shades of gray. It doesn’t often present itself in the form of a familiar caricature. And it mysteriously doesn’t seem to present itself at all to those who are being corrupted. It’s invisible. That’s the thing about corruption. Those who fall victim are almost always the last to see it.

I am not without sympathy. Elected officials are under very real and very extreme pressures. None more extreme than those that must come from within. They are tugged mercilessly in different directions by competing impulses. They are damned if they do and damned if they don’t. If you resist assimilation into the Capitol culture you risk becoming a pariah. A wet-behind-the-ears misfit. You become an easy target for the worst of all possible insults that can be hurled at a politician, namely that you don’t know how to play the game.

On the other hand, if you go along, if you try to fit in, you have to know that there is a price to pay. And I’m not just talking about the year-round campaign fundraising, the incessant dialing for dollars. Or pretending that you actually enjoy the company of stuffed shirts and oily con men. No, the biggest toll is knowingly and willingly accepting that what you think, say and do must be negotiable. And by no means in harmony.

If this sounds to you like saying farewell to integrity – not to mention happiness, at least by Gandhi’s standards – then you grasp the going price of power at the Capitol.

All of which begs the question: Why do they, why do we, tolerate a political culture that forces good, well-intentioned people to do this?

Power, at its current price, costs too much.

WDC Executive Director Mike McCabe
Mike McCabe
WDC Executive Director
2000-2014

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