Are American Politicians People Too?

Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Western culture and American culture especially places a great deal of emphasis on the individual. Personal responsibility is king; each person fails and succeeds as an individual more often than not (there’s no ‘I’ in team, but there is in winner and failure). This is an oft-discussed characteristic used to explain the different values of Eastern and Western nations, and admittedly, in many cases it oversimplifies the complexities of societies therein. However, when it comes to leadership in the United States, it’s a generalization that casts an interesting light on how we see people in positions of power — and in particular, how we evaluate them.

The Case of Incumbents

On the one hand, Americans sometimes see members of Congress as just that: individuals. It’s part of why we re-elect incumbents so often, even when frustration has reached a fiery peak with the legislature as a whole. According to Bloomberg, 90 percent of incumbent representatives and 91 percent of incumbent Senators facing re-election in 2012 managed to remain in office, and this is hardly a single year phenomenon.

It’s well-known that incumbents tend to do well, even in years like this one where public opinion of Congress is at a particular low. Americans tend to re-elect their own district’s lawmakers because even if congressional approval is low, approval of representatives themselves is usually slightly more positive — according to Gallup’s polling information last year. In May of 2013, approval was at 33 percent, but when respondents were asked about “the way the representative from your congressional district is handling his or her job,” the approval for that same month was 46 percent, considerably more positive than Congress taken as a whole. This is a well-known phenomenon, but there is more to America’s perception of leaders.

Leaders Aren’t People

However, in America — in Ferguson, in Washington D.C., in the White House, and in Congress — leaders are not people. They are certainly not part of a team or community; and outside the voting box, where we’re not forced to focus on local faces, leaders are not people either. They aren’t human beings and they aren’t individuals; they’re symbols of what Americans suffer and struggle through in their daily personal lives. President Barack Obama recognized and addressed this in a recent interview with Steve Kroft on CBS’s Sixty Minutes.

The president spoke with confidence on the positives that have been accomplished during his time in office, listing unemployment decreases, clean energy, and economic recovery as examples. Yet when Kroft asked if he believed Americans feel that they are better off, Obama was blunt: “They don’t feel it. And the reason they don’t feel it is because incomes and wages are not going up.” Years ago, he was asked by a child at a speech why everyone hated him, and he explained with a similar sentiment that, “They’re worried about their own lives. A lot of people are losing their jobs right now, a lot of people are losing their healthcare, or they’ve lost their homes to foreclosure, and they’re feeling frustrated. And when you’re President of the United States, you’ve got to deal with all of that.”

It is perhaps for this reason that America is a bubbling pot of frustration. Being angry at the leadership doesn’t solve problems, it just creates an atmosphere of national pessimism. To a certain extent, the best leaders are only human. Cooperation between individual politicians has all the interpersonal pitfalls everyday people face, with the added pressure of an entire nation. The best policy sometimes takes decades to bring about tangible change to the economy, the job market, and the daily lives of Americans.

Anger in Ferguson — where racial tensions have been boiling over after an unarmed black teen who was shot and killed by a white police officer — is also relevant when we consider the power structure there. If leaders are not people, they cannot apologize, or perhaps more accurately, citizens will not care about their apologies, only results that are tangible and clear. In Ferguson, that is just how Police Chief Thomas Jackson’s apology video was received by many.

It’s also arguable that the more frustrated Americans are with the conditions they find their nation in, the less they see the individual faces of politicians, even their own incumbent representatives and Senators; look at Eric Cantor’s loss this midterm season. It might also explain the Republican party’s decision to start the “Republican’s Are People Too” initiative. The video is, in many ways, very counter-effective. Having to remind people that Republicans have feelings, shop at Trader Joe’s, and are sometimes (gasp) black often only serves to remind people that this was ever in doubt.

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