32 – rei publicae
Ever wondered where the term “republic” came from? Probably the best way to say the english word “politics” in latin is “rei publicae.” Things (rei) concerning the public welfare (publicae). Well, that may be what it was a thousand years ago. It was a mixed bag even then, truly. Interestingly, the republic form of government was designed so that a leader’s self interest would drive him to work for the common good. The idea, simplistically stated, was that a leader would have to work for the best interests of the voting public to be elected and keep his job, which was in his personal best interest. By the election system, the best interests of self and public were intertwined. That may have worked for a decade or so, but very quickly leaders learned that being elected and re-elected had more to do with the public’s perception of them than the actual truth about them. And so began what we moderns call politics. The task for a leader is not simply to work for the public welfare, but to make sure the voting public perceives the leader doing what they want. Every word matters here.
Not just the public, but the voting public. That means the politician had only to please white men before 1920 and suddenly politics changed with female suffrage. Politicians now had to earn, or at least persuade, the vote of women – different market. Way back in 1870 the 15th amendment was ratified to provide black suffrage, supposedly giving all male citizens the right to vote regardless of “race, color or previous condition of servitude.” But it didn’t really work well due to restrictions based on property ownership, literacy, etc. Not until 1965 was the “Voting Rights Act” passed by the Johnson administration to clean up this right. Shortly afterwards, the black membership in congress doubled. Who gets to vote changed, and changes, who the leader or potential leader has to please. I’ve heard a lot said about which party was more or less racist in years past – the truth is that regardless of the platforms and public positions, political parties did not and do not cater to people who weren’t (or aren’t) voting. It wasn’t and isn’t a matter of not caring about those sects based on color or gender – it’s about who can hand you the power, and who cannot. When I once ran for office, an opponent rightly explained, “the problem for you is that I know the people who can put me in office and you know people who’ve lost their voting rights.”
Now that we have excluded the need to bother with the public so much as cater to the voters, we should reconcile ourselves to the fact that the truth doesn’t win or lose votes so much as the voter’s perception. Quite different. The qualified but naive candidate will often make the mistake of trying to educate the public – or the voters – while the more politically savvy candidate will use the voters’ ignorance to his or her benefit. Perception of the decision maker is much more valuable than fact in politics and courtrooms. In times past, managing perception was as simple as controlling the outgo of information, and comfort as well as frustration was often found in the limited resources of dissemination, depending on whether you wanted news to travel or not. In the 21st century information travels at the speed of light and government is aware of and often frustrated with laws requiring “transparency.” Dissemination of good or bad information is no longer controlled by many of the politicians. A good look at those laws though, still give protection and cover to those who make those laws. Perception is everything.
I learned these lessons the hard way in 2006 through 2008. I had been representing indigents for several years. I worked as a criminal public defender and I represented parents in child abuse cases. I operated a charity law firm. When the judge whose courtroom I spent 4 out of 5 days a week in retired, I sought to be appointed to that position. I was not “republican” enough though. I had spent my career working in that area of law, and outside of that, often fighting for causes that would be called “conservative,” but I wasn’t active in the party. I ran for the position with naive expectations and I learned a lot in the process. I was told by an insider not to run, and I should have saved my money and the money of my supporters, and heeded his advice.
The next time an appointment came up, I applied but quickly learned that I was not enough of a democrat.
Next appointment – not enough of a republican again. Ok. I finally got it. Party politics.
The political parties are, in this day and age, the “voters,” to which I referred earlier. Most people who actively vote identify with one party or the other, and they actually believe that a politician’s party affiliation gives them some truth about that politician. I’m afraid I must disagree though. I think, based on living in this system for some time now, that as long as a politician seems like they could win, and will be loyal to the party, a party will take them in. As far as I can tell, the party claimed has less to do with actual values and more to do with promised or proven loyalty to said party. Or maybe I should say it this way: the most important value has become loyalty. Most others are disposable or at least negotiable as long as the particular candidate can secure a W for the party.
I ran a firm called “Christian Legal Service.” I offered charity service (sounds D), represented conservative religious entities (sounds R), and openly worked with both sides of the political fence (suspicious, at best). When people encouraged me to run for office, I did so, and learned a lot of painful lessons in the process.
If you’ve ever been dumped or rejected in a romantic relationship, where someone said “it’s not personal” or “it’s not you it’s me,” or some other crap, you might can imagine putting all your qualifications, beliefs, and yourself out there just to hear thousands of people say “no thank you – nothing personal – you’re not part of my club.”
I am who I am, and I will be who I will be. I may run again some day, but I will not sacrifice who I actually am at the altar of party politics. I’ve spent too much time figuring that out to ditch it for some votes.