Sympathy for the Devil… Or at Least for a Politician


Last Thursday didn’t begin pleasantly; I had to attend the funeral of an old friend. But the day did at least turn interesting when I saw a mutual acquaintance at the funeral service: a man who ended up as a long-term congressman. This guy was from the West Coast and didn’t know anyone in the church except me, so we sat together. After the ceremony, I offered to give him a ride back to his hotel.

As we drove, the congressman, spurred by thoughts of life, death, and meaning, opened up and began talking from his heart, not from behind the usual “politician” screen. I suggested that we stop at Jay’s Bar, which had been my old cypherpunk hangout in the ‘90s. Robert (the congressman) agreed. We found a quiet spot (it was midday and the bar was nearly empty) and asked Jaime, the daytime bartender, to get us a couple of sandwiches from the Italian place next door.

Robert and I talked for a couple of hours, and I have to admit that I’ve never before felt the level of sympathy for a politician that I did for him. I knew he had started as a “Goldwater kid” back in the ‘60s, and our mutual friend (the deceased) had assured me that Robert went to Washington with the very best of intentions, wanting to make life in America better. But as we talked, I could see that Robert was worn out and dejected by his life in Washington.

After our sandwiches and a drink or two, Robert made a comment about his constituents not really wanting him to fix things. I might normally have interpreted that as some kind of excuse, but he seemed especially open at that moment, so I asked him what he meant. He sighed and told me a story…

Several years ago, he and some other congressmen realized that it wouldn’t be easy, but they had an opportunity to actually deliver on most of the things they had campaigned for so many times. (Reduced government meddling in people’s lives, primarily.) So Robert set up a meeting with his core constituents and explained the plan to them.

These were all donors, by the way, and fairly well off at a minimum.

The plan was that they would make their demands, knowing that their political adversaries couldn’t defeat them, but that they could create a lot of pain before they gave in. So Robert told his donors this:

We can get almost everything we want in the next session of Congress, but the other side will make a massive fight over it. So, what I want to know from you is this: if the price of this is that you miss your Social Security checks for a month or two, will you stand with me?

Then Robert stopped talking and lowered his gaze to his beer.

“And?” I asked.

He looked up at me sadly and said, “None of them raised their hand to agree. Not one.”

“But these were all people with money, Robert; a couple of delayed checks couldn’t hurt them very much.”

“Yeah,” he said. “That’s what I thought. But not one of them would pay even a small price to get what they said they wanted.”

“Damn, I’m sorry.” He nodded in a sort of mournful “thank you” and went back to work on his beer.

As we sat quietly for a few minutes, I heard an old Sheryl Crow song playing on the radio. The lyrics I noticed were these:

Lie to me,
I promise, I’ll believe.
Lie to me,
But please don’t leave.

That brought me to another subject, but I was hesitant to bring it up. Politician or not, this man was feeling a lot of sadness and I didn’t want to pile on. But he always was a tough guy, and he got there himself.

“You know what that means, don’t you, Paul?”

“Yeah, I do, Robert. It means that no matter what they say, they don’t really want freedom… they’re not willing to suffer for it. All their slogans are just brave-sounding words.”

He nodded his head.

“And it means something else,” he said.

I was pretty sure that I knew what he meant. “You mean they need politicians, so that there’s always someone to blame?”

“That’s exactly what I mean,” he said.

Like I say, it’s not often that I feel sorry for a politician, but on this occasion I had to. This man had started with good intentions. And regardless of how badly Washington had let him down (which it had, in spades), what really pierced his heart was learning that his voters didn’t really want what they said they wanted. That made everything he had done in DC almost meaningless. It’s tough to watch that kind of realization spreading over the face of a guy you know.

I ended up giving Robert a ride back to his hotel and thanked him for coming all the way to our friend’s funeral. And I still felt sorry for him as I made my way back home. Realizing that several decades of your life were mostly for naught has to be an awfully rough thing.

And politicians really do serve as “icons of blame” for a huge number of people. Regardless of which political party you love or hate, there’s always someone to blame for your troubles: The Blues are ruining the world, the Reds are ruining the world, the “establishment” is ruining the world, and so on, without end.

The truth of the matter is that the productive people of the world—those of us who create and supply products and services—have the ultimate say over what happens on this planet. If any serious number of us decided that we really didn’t like what politicians were doing, we could simply withdraw our support and the political systems would crash, and quickly.

The problem is that productive people have been trained to fear responsibility and to believe that they have no right to insert their will into the world. Until that changes, blaming politicians is almost meaningless. Yes, they lie, steal, and cause lots of harm, but they persist because people want them to persist. All their complaints come up shallow.

The rightful controllers of this world are the producers, and they can get whatever they want, as soon as they’re ready to assert their will and to take responsibility for it.

Paul Rosenberg

This article was originally published by Casey Research.