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 couldn’t even 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 that 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 thought about this again Tuesday as embattled U.S. Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.) admitted that he did indeed engage in “inappropriate behavior” with women he’d met online. As Republicans attack him and Democrats pointedly refuse to defend him, it’s pretty clear that the only question is how long it’ll be before he resigns.
Every time something such as this happens, 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.
At times, some people 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 search 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 True Believers who honestly think the politicians are great. 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 change 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 Weiner. 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 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.
Note: I had to search the microfilm archives at the Birmingham Public Library Tuesday afternoon to find a copy of my old letter to the editor. I’d like to express my appreciation to the librarian in the microfilm room for her efficient and friendly help.