Why Is the Difference Between a Citizen and a Politician Important Today?

There are fundamental differences between being an American citizen and being a politician. As citizens, we’re to make sure that those we elect to represent us know exactly what our positions are on the issues that affect our lives.

As citizens, it’s not our job to present to the politician a position that’s not fully our own or is a pre-compromised version of it because we think that the compromise is more likely to be turned into legislation.

When we do that, we’re ensuring that politicians do not know what we really think while communicating that we aren’t convinced that our position should matter that much. We’re implying that politicians need not consider our actual stand in the process.

When I pre-compromise, I’m moving toward a position that isn’t mine and actually affirming the opposite of my own view by that very move. I’m communicating that I believe the opposing position is just as worthwhile, so politicians should feel free to move in that direction.

Pre-negotiating one’s needs and wants before expressing them doesn’t help politics, marriages, or even leadership in any organization. It merely means that the other in such relationships, the one for whom we pre-mediate our own positions, will never really know what we think. Our culture especially tells women to pre-compromise.

A citizen, as well, isn’t an uncritical follower of any politician, even those we’ve voted for and probably will again. I don’t expect any politician to agree with me on everything, and must let them know when I agree and don’t. I’m surprised when I have no gripes.

Our job is to keep those who’ve chosen to represent us informed of our views. You can bet that the right-wing will do it incessantly, and the squeaky wheel will get the most grease.

Politicians, though, have deliberately chosen to take on the citizen-paid job of actually working to implement the opinions of those they represent. That will at times require compromise.

Sometimes that compromise will be to incrementally change things. And we’ll know that that is the reason when the politician tells us about their plans for the next step after the success of this increment.

At times the politician must compromise because there are, frankly, different valid and logical ways to do things. Then it’s the politician’s job to explain that to us and answer our questions in a way that looks as if they’re listening and without mere reliance on talking points.

A good politician doesn’t act like an old-fashioned cash register where we push a key and theirs is the automatic response. A good politician – and there are few of these – is a leader who takes the time to explain, arguing that their decision was better than ours and showing us why we should follow their thinking.

But there are also times when nefarious reasons compromise a politician – Is the politician taking a stand based upon whose money dominates their lives? Does the politician not have a core set of values that will make them stand for something, proving they believe it even if they’re willing to lose for it? Has the politician sunk to the lesser goal of merely getting elected and maintaining power? What will the politician gain personally by their position?

All of this means that democracy and representative government is just plain messy. When corporations are in charge, things are clean. When democracy kills you, it’s a mess; when corporations do, it’s all neat and tidy.

It’s the difference between a national chain coffee shop and your local dive. The corporate place is neat and orderly with a limited number of approved psoters and papers nicely displayed. In the local non-corporate establishment, there’s a bit of chaos, disorderliness, and a variety of local notices and publications cluttering the tables and the bulletin boards.

Recognizing all this then, we’re guaranteed to disagree. Social media amplifies that rhetoric.

The key is to keep liberal and progressive movements together, and we’ve not been very good at that. We’ve also learned that Russian cyber-warriors work to exploit us into thinking that what they portray about a candidate and their supporters is reality.

Yes, yes, everyone should know that no candidate is “perfect” – I had problems with positions of both major Democratic presidential candidates and also knew realistically that the Democratic Party nominee was my only practical choice.

And I didn’t frame the discussion ever as “the least bad choice” but in terms of better choices. When we frame it as the former we discourage anyone we’re trying to convince and encourage Republicans. Studies show that the “negative” in campaigns works to keep voters home on Election Day more than to strengthen our side.

But when people complain about a candidate, it’s passive aggressive or worse to label the critic as seeking a “perfect” candidate or requiring a “purity test.” Those responses shut down discussion and split us all. They’re not measured, rational, or helpful.

It’s difficult to just stay on a positive message about the better candidate we support. We take disagreements as personal attacks even though we’re citizens not the politicians who’ve volunteered for the fray.

It’s difficult to admit where our own choice isn’t perfect by admitting we agree with the criticism and yet discussing why we stick with them. No wonder former generations recommended we never discuss politics or religion.

There are also cultural factors that definitely influence people’s criticisms more than people want to admit. Sexism, ageism, classism, white racism, able-bodied-ism, beautyism and others are persistently systemic. But pointing them out can be done a number of ways – some just not helpful.

Our responses to critics tell us more about ourselves and our fears and disappointments. When we get caught up, let’s face it, it becomes hard to listen to critics and to envision what will be needed to move the Party we favor forward.

But as citizens, our obligation is always to inform politicians where we stand and expect them to work it out. American historian Howard Zinn put it this way: “When a social movement adopts the compromises of legislators, it has forgotten its role, which is to push and challenge the politicians, not to fall in meekly behind them.”

© 2018 Robert N. Minor

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Robert N. Minor, Ph.D., Professor Emeritus at the University of Kansas, is author of When Religion Is an Addiction; Scared Straight: Why It’s So Hard to Accept Gay People and Why It’s So Hard to Be Human; and Gay & Healthy in a Sick Society. Contact him at www.FairnessProject.org


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