I have a confession to make. Up until the day he resigned in 1974, I was a fervent supporter of President Richard Nixon, because I thought he was a victim of political opponents and the “liberal media.” Of course, I was a mere kid at the time, but I was still a True Believer of the worst kind.
When Nixon resigned on Aug. 8, 1974, I finally accepted the truth that had been right in front of me for a long time. I sat down and wrote the letter you see here and it ran on Aug. 18 as a letter to the editor in The Birmingham News. The paper had no way to know it was running a letter from someone who wouldn’t even be eligible to vote for years to come.
I don’t bring this up just to point out my own gullibility — although there’s that, too — but to point to something painfully common. People have a natural instinct to trust politicians who they agree with. They have a tendency to accept almost anything from the ones they like, even though they hold their enemies to a much different standard.
I think about this every time there’s a scandal involving a popular politician. I’ve thought about it recently when it comes to supporters of Barack Obama, who are determined to keep supporting their candidate, even though it should be clear by now that he’s just a black Democrat playing the part of George W. Bush.
In the same way, I thought about it with Bush supporters. No matter how painfully obvious it became that their candidate had manipulated the truth in order to invade Iraq, they couldn’t admit the truth about their hero. I know quite a number of them who are still convinced that the U.S. military found the mythical “weapons of mass destruction” in Iraq that the president and his people used to justify the war.
Every time something such as this happens — or there’s another scandal involving a well-loved politician — it’s easy for people on one side or another of political debates to sanctimoniously point fingers at their opponents and claim this dreadful behavior is typical of the other side, but unheard of among their sainted group. But when something similar happens to an ally, it’s always seen as a shocking anomaly that nobody could have seen coming. In other words, pretty much everybody is in denial about it, just as I was in denial about Nixon.
People sometimes claim the solution is to find better leaders. We need more moral men and women, they claim. We need people who are in “public service” — a phrase I loathe — for something other than their own good and their own ego. And so the search goes on for the mythical Great Leader who we can all put our faith in.
The problem isn’t the individuals in politics — although some of them are pathological in various ways. The problem is giving power to some people to control other people. It’s an old problem. Humans have a primitive tribal need to trust in others to make decisions for them, so they’re constantly searching for a new leadership messiah.
One surprising thing I learned from my years in politics is that most people get into the field with good intentions. (If you read Nixon biographies, you’ll find that he was no different in that regard.) Before they know it, they’re seduced by a system that tells them they’re important. They’re surrounded by worshipful True Believers. Before they know it, they’ve frequently become experts at playing the role of Caring Leader, but their narcissistic need for approval, praise and control grows. These are smart people who can justify pretty much anything — to you and to themselves.
If you trust politicians and hand power to them, they’re going to disappoint you, whether they’re Democrats or Republicans or Libertarians or whatever. (For those of us out of the political mainstream, it’s easy to proudly think our leaders are different, but the truth is that they’ve never had any power, so they haven’t had a chance to disappoint us.)
Quit trusting politicians and political institutions. Quit giving them power. Instead, enter into voluntary arrangements with others who have market incentives to treat us as we want to be treated.
As long as you trust the state, you’re going to get big disappointments such as Nixon and petty disappointments such as Bush and Obama. You’re going to be disappointed by whoever is the scandal of the moment at every point in every news cycle.
There’s another bad thing about trusting politicians. It turns us into fools. I was a fool as a kid for my faith in Nixon. I was a fool to argue with people that he couldn’t possibly have done what he was being accused of. I was even enough of a fool afterwards to take a snide shot in my letter at those who had been right, when I condemned them for their “premature conclusions.” When we trust politicians, we make it a matter of ego for us, because we don’t want to feel foolish by being wrong.
Trusting politicians and the state system is a choice. You can’t start looking for alternatives until you accept that politicians are ultimately going to disappoint you. No matter who the politician is, he doesn’t deserve to be trusted with state power. Anybody who is willing to exercise the power of the state almost certainly isn’t psychologically functional enough to be trusted with it.