The Republican Speaker of the House and failed vice-presidential candidate met ceremoniously in early May with a volatile, narcissistic reality TV star who is the presumptive Republican presidential candidate. The forty-five-minute meeting produced hype, not information, and exhibited the gamesmanship central to many political campaigns.
It evoked another round of the questions that people pose during political posturing. But the key to understanding it is that it involved two very different politicians who both must maintain their image of power within the same Party.
There are political season questions that are regularly asked about both major parties, with the expectation of rational answers. How could someone support that guy? Why would someone support one candidate or another?
In another conversation, the questions might be: why isn’t someone condemning discriminatory laws? Don’t they understand that those laws won’t hold up in court?
Or: do you think someone is going to govern the way they campaign? Can I trust someone’s promises?
People will ask similar questions throughout any election cycle, especially one with both apparent main-party presidential candidates having the lowest approval ratings in generations. And the real answers to the questions tell us what candidates actually value.
As many politicians become acclimated to holding office, their overriding goal becomes maintaining their positions and power. So uppermost in the minds of those down-ticket in presidential elections is weighing the chances of whether their or another presidential candidate might win and how best to maintain access and clout when she/he does or doesn’t.
Will my decision mean I keep my legislative committee assignments or be punished? Will I be appointed to chair a prestigious committee? Will I get party financial support for my reelection?
What should be a means (holding office) to achieving goals for constituents and country, becomes the end: getting elected, reelected and maintaining power. So what politicians often do and say is based upon the value placed upon obtaining and maintaining their positions.
When an election becomes one's value, then all they might otherwise value is subordinated to it. And there are many ways to do that.
They sideline, postpone, play down, or talk as if they don’t absolutely value the causes they would otherwise support. They’re now persuaded that this is the way to get and maintain office and convinced that once securely in office they’ll champion what they believe that they highly value.
They tell a group that “this isn’t the time” to push their cause because they - the right candidate the group should support - can’t get elected if they advocate for certain causes. Every oppressed group knows marginalization through being told that they have to wait - with the excuse that that’s how you’ve got to play politics.
They deflect a group’s needs and demands by instructing them to reflect upon, and be thankful for, “how far they’ve come.” They mustn’t over-expect and should instead show gratefulness to all who’ve helped them come this far.
They patronize a group by saying they don’t understand the real world of politics as well as the politician does. They thereby redefine the problem as the group’s own lack of political savvy and intelligence, not their difficulties.
And speaking of political realities: a real danger is that anyone attaining public office might never feel, or be, secure enough to safely take up these postponed issues.
When does one feel secure enough to value something greater than getting reelected and keeping power? When does someone actually prioritize for the values they profess and we wish they would?
When do they take the chance of losing office because of the greater principles they claim to value? Have we all just given in to a form of hopeless politics instead of change?
Granted: politics is the art of compromise. But should one compromise before they’ve advocated for their ideal proposal and never begin negotiations there?
Granted: change often happens in increments, rather than all at once. Thus, each proposal should be understood as assuming the next step.
But the test of honest incrementalism is whether it’s actually advocating a step forward to a valued goal or just an excuse to never move further. Is it an excuse to never follow up? Does it reveal that the professed ultimate values aren’t worth fighting for?
It’s the responsibility of democratic citizenship to hold one’s representatives to the real end of it all, not just to get them elected. Citizens make it clear to their representatives what they want the end to be and then expect their representatives to work out how that is going to happen given political realities.
So, the answers to the questions we have regarding why politicians do what they do are often political ones reflecting what posturing politicians think they require to gain and maintain position. That’s the logic behind them.
You can hear, for example, these political calculations in Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan’s words after meeting with Donald Trump. Not surprisingly, Ryan is protecting his political career.
Not only did he posture himself for future political runs by distancing from the losing presidential candidate whom he shared the ballot with, saying: “I didn’t agree with Mitt Romney on everything.” But he also positioned himself as the powerbroker who must approve of Trump.
While the media fawned, Ryan talked about his discussions with Trump as probes of what they can agree upon and as a “process” he commands by drawing endorsement out. In addition, he defined Trump’s supporters as a “new group of conservatives” being brought into his fold.
Throughout, politician Ryan spoke of determining whether Trump does or will agree with conservative (that is Ryan’s) principles. And in so doing he’s masterfully doing what politicians do: valuing most the maintenance of personal power and position.
Robert N. Minor, Ph.D., Professor Emeritus of Religious Studies 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