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`Mindless' politicians follow public, forget leadership

What I'm about to say may not be a revelation for many of you, but it just hit me the other day. I was sitting on my couch, smelling the fresh scent of rusty radiator, when I saw the Vice-President of the United States play theatrical politics and, more or less, make an ass of himself on national T.V. In order to make a point about the history of American-Mexican trade agreements, Gore pulled out a lovely little picture of two legislators responsible for an American tariff in the 1930s. That's when it hit me-politics suck.

Now maybe I shouldn't be so hard on Al; at least he spelled everything correctly. However, spelling aside, I have a tough time understanding the relevance of a 60-year-old mug shot to the NAFTA debate. Four years, lots of money, a few too many public policy classes and I finally figured it out: politics suck. Sure it's easy to say, and I don't imagine terribly controversial, but it leads us to a more important and interesting question. Why?

To help me answer this question I did what any self-respecting, very tired Duke student would do: I asked other people. I got two categories of answers: the what-are-you-a-moron-that's-the-way-it's-always-been answer and the less hopeful, more honest, shut-up-I'm-watching-Notre-Dame answer. While I admit there is no meaningful rebuttal to answer number 2, I cannot buy into the overused, underproductive typical Duke que sera, sera explanation for just about everything. So I'm still left with the unanswered question: Why?

Since none of my friends (okay neither of my friends) felt like ruminating on this particular issue, I went back to my trusty television for the answer. I heard commentator after commentator analyze the upcoming congressional vote on NAFTA. From what I saw, people on both sides of this thing seemed to at least agree on something: If the congressional vote was anonymous, NAFTA would probably pass with flying colors.

However, they said, that while most legislators might agree that NAFTA is in the long-term best interests of our country, most legislators still don't want to vote for it. Allow me to ask the obvious-why would a legislator who might really believe in the benefits of a particular policy vote that policy down?

The answer is easy: because our system of government institutionalizes and rewards people who run around trying to nail down public opinion. The goal of successful politicians seems to be frantically figuring our where the mass of public opinion is going and stepping out in front of it. However, no one is out there trying to lead that mass.

In contemporary American politics, ye with the best pollster gets re-elected and ye who voices your own opinions does not. Responsible leadership has been replaced with saying what lots of people think they want to hear, regardless of the consequences. Thus, successful politics has become successful polling and leadership has fallen by the wayside.

Let's play politician for the moment and see how much fun nailing down public opinion can be: I think the pasta at the rat is a little pricey. Menorahs deserve equal time. Or how about this one: velcro walls and rock climbing walls should be permanent fixtures in every quad. Or this: no new taxes.

See where mindlessly following public opinion gets us. It gets us a Vice-President who flashes a picture of two dead guys in order to communicate his sincere support for a policy that he claims to believe in. It gets us individual legislators who are too smart to vote intelligently. It gets us a big blow-up jeep in the middle of campus. And our system of mass communication and representation seems to make sure that this level of critical thinking is perpetuated and our politicians will always be willing to win the battle (their re-election) and lose the war (responsible decision making).

It's always easy to be negative, so let's try something positive: it would be nice if politics and leadership would sometimes overlap. It would be nice if our political system allowed for some level of sincerity. But is it possible for a successful politician to be a responsible leader?

If the answer is yes, then maybe there's hope for improving our country and our world. If the answer is no, politics really suck.

Mark Grazman is a Trinity senior.


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