Monday, July 29, 2013

Why Do Politicians Insist That They are Not Professionals?

Why is it so common for those engaged in the profession of politics to deny that they are professional politicians? In what other line of work do professionals assert that they are simply amateurs?

I guess this phenomenon also occurs at certain levels of athletics. While Olympic level competition has given way to openly admitting professional athletes, we continue to ridiculously insist that all collegiate athletes are amateurs. It might be somewhat common for drug pushers and prostitutes to deny that they are professionals to law enforcement officials, but probably not to their customers.

The denial of one's own professionalism is never or almost never seen in fields like medicine, education, business, entertainment, finance, technology, etc. Even if there were no laws about who could perform surgery, you wouldn't see some guy openly advertising that he wants to be your surgeon, despite being an amateur. But politicians do this kind of thing all of the time, asserting that they are political outsiders.

So what is different about politics, some athletics, and illegal activities that make people deny that they are professionals? It would seem that each of these parties has something to gain by such a denial. Crime professionals are obviously seeking leniency. College athletes are simply working within collegiate association rules that (wink, wink, nod, nod) seek to maintain an appearance of amateurism that all but the most gullible can easily see through.

Politicians assert non-professionalism to get voters and constituents to view the politician as one of their own—someone just like them that shares their same concerns and wants the same things. That is, they are attempting to blind their constituents to the reality that they have personal political incentives that dramatically differ from those that vote for them.

I once heard a local politician complain that he had many supporters when he was running for office that turned on him once he was elected. "I was their friend and hero when I was running against the incumbent. Now that I am in office they all treat me like the enemy," he said. "What is it about getting elected that turns someone into the enemy?" he asked.

While this politician couldn't understand the phenomenon, his erstwhile supporters did; at least subconsciously. They understood that once in office he would operate according to what he felt was best for him rather than what was best for them. He would discover, for example, that he had to grease the skids with the power brokers if he wanted any piece of legislation he created to have any chance of progressing.

The development of political relationships and the necessary exchange of favors creates incentives that ofttimes run counter to the interests of voters; although, the politician is expert at convincing himself that he is actually acting in the voters' best interests.

As long as these political activities do not raise too many hackles, the politician can hope to be re-elected or even elected to higher office. But the politician works in a dynamic system where things are constantly shifting. More than one politician has been surprised to have his career cut short when what he has always done suddenly hits the spotlight in a negative way due to factors beyond his control.

One of the common tools for hedging against this is for the politician to carefully market himself as a politically erudite amateur rather than a political professional. He doesn't have to really convince everyone that he is not a professional politician; just enough to ensure election.

A friend of mine ran for mayor when his city planned to widen the road adjacent to his home only on his side of the road. Much of his yard would have been consumed. Due to a number of factors, he ended up becoming mayor and having to learn what a mayor really does. Immersion in the political world was an eye opening experience. After getting his bearings, he found that he rather enjoyed it.

The voters booted my friend out of office the following election because they sensed that he had moved from concerned citizen to politician. Interestingly, he made a comeback four years later, posing once again as an outsider. But once back in office he again showed himself to be an insider. The voters demonstrated at the end of his second term that they had finally had enough of him.

Politicians don't always deny their profession. U.S. Senator Orrin Hatch, who initially ran as an outsider in 1976 garnered a seventh term mainly by running as an experienced Washington insider. The most adept politicians sense what the public wants to hear and market themselves accordingly.

Majestic rhetoric about politicians doing their civic duty is often bandied about to bolster the idea that politicians serve some kind of higher purpose than their constituents that spend their days working regular jobs and raising families. Some of the politicians might even believe it. But doing so will not stop them from acting in their own interest while in office, even if they tell themselves otherwise.

Political systems exist of necessity. Due to necessity they are staffed with politicians—politicians that act chiefly in their own interest. The wise voter will recognize these realities rather than believing mythical stories about political saints and saviors.

No comments: