Michael Kinsley: Why Would Anyone Go into Politics?

The Great Budget Debate of 2011 has left behind a sour taste and several big questions, including: Who would want to run a country whose hottest exports are IOUs? Why would anybody choose to be a politician when national office means contending with $14 trillion in debt?

Increasingly, people are opting out. Even senior senators with safe seats and important chairmanships are announcing that they want to spend more time with their families, which actually means they want to spend less time with Harry Reid, Mitch McConnell, and the like. Yet there is never a dearth of people queued up to replace them.

It can’t be for the money. Very few politicians are actually stupid, and even those few who are, usually have a certain animal cunning that would earn them more in the private sector. Our campaign finance system may be a sewer of corruption, but keep in mind that all the money raised legally by politicians must be spent on getting someone elected or re-elected.

Is it ideals that propel people into politics, some vision of America they wish to realize? This is what they all would claim, but it’s not true. They may have inclinations or instincts that come close to core beliefs—smaller government or universal health care—but an actual philosophy of any detail can be a disadvantage in politics, as it will inevitably lead someplace you’d rather not go. Ron Paul, the libertarian who’s running for President as a Republican, will get into trouble again and again if he insists on stating his true beliefs, which he almost always does. Most pols fall somewhere on the spectrum between Paul and Mitt Romney, whose views on every subject are completely at the service of his ambition.

Could it be raw hunger for power that entices people into a political career? That’s the classical explanation. I once asked a conservative colleague what motivated the Soviet Union to continue trying to conquer the world if nobody in the Kremlin bought into Communist ideology anymore. He said, “The same thing that motivates Eileen [an especially devious and power-hungry colleague, name and department changed] to want to be head of HR.”

The trouble is—as the budget brouhaha dramatically demonstrated—no pol, not even the President, has much power or control over events. Certainly running for a seat in the Missouri legislature in the hope of one day being elected President and getting to start wars and do other cool stuff is a fool’s errand.

None of these explanations makes much sense. I’ve concluded the reason so many people still have political ambitions is the desire for popularity. Politics is the only profession where thousands or millions of people actually go out and vote for you. This is close to the ultimate in signaling approval. There was nothing like it until Facebook came along.

Now, I suppose, being “friended” performs roughly the same function of enhancing self-esteem, while being “unfriended” destroys it for others. If you think your ego can survive probable failure, politics may be your ticket. It’s not a totally irrational ambition. At least it wasn’t totally irrational before 82 percent of people polled disapproved of Congress, and didn’t feel much better about other government institutions. Now, you do have to wonder.

Can the politicians do anything to restore their popularity? The traditional method of doing this is to determine what the people want, and give it to them. Crude, but effective. The problem in this case is that the people cannot have what they want. What they want is mathematically impossible: stable or lower taxes and no serious reductions in government benefit programs like Medicare.

William Safire, the late New York Times columnist and, before that, speechwriter for President Richard Nixon, used to joke that his job in the White House had been that of Rejected Counsel. Nixon was fond of saying, about tough decisions, that some of his advisers had urged him to do the easy thing, the popular thing, but he had rejected this advice and decided to do the right thing, however unpopular. Safire jokingly claimed to be one of the anonymous aides who supposedly told Nixon to do what’s popular and not what’s right.

In a representative democracy like ours, every politician will face the dilemma from time to time: should he or she do what’s right or what’s popular? We celebrate those who choose the former, and re-elect those who do the latter. But another name for doing what’s popular is democracy, and another name for doing what you think is right—though knowing that your constituents disagree—is elitism. Or sometimes, “Going Washington.”

Writer Tom Bethell used to call this the “strange new respect” phenomenon. Some populist firebrand is elected to the House or Senate on a platform of promising to burn down the Capitol and crucify everyone inside. Then he or she votes in favor of, say, raising the retirement age for Social Security by one month every five years, beginning in 100 years or only after every current voter has died, whichever comes later. AARP is having a fit, constituent mail is running 10-to-1 against, but the Washington Post runs a profile saying that our man or woman is being accorded a strange new respect by Washington power brokers. An invitation to a state dinner, a reference in one of the skits at the Gridiron, an appearance on Meet the Press, and our guy or gal is lost to the world outside the Beltway. This is the Tea Party vision of how things work in Washington, and it’s not completely paranoid or imaginary.

What’s popular versus what’s right is a familiar debate, and it seems you can’t have it without bringing up the famous quote from Edmund Burke on the duties of an elected representative: “Your Representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgement; he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.” The flaw in the Burkean argument (which may not have applied in his time but certainly applies in ours) is that this is not the platform elected politicians ran on. They generally didn’t win office by promising to use their best judgment. Nobody wants their judgment. They won by promising to support or oppose specific policies.

Which brings us back to the original question of why anyone would want to be a politician in current circumstances. The clear answer is: I have no idea.

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