Each week in On the Other Hand, Ben Bartlett defies the common wisdom and identifies the other side of the story of cultural hot-topic issues.

There are a few strong themes or perhaps schools of thought we use as shorthand to think about politicians in general.  First, there is the theme of politicians as heroes.  We look to Washington, Adams, Lincoln, Roosevelt, FDR, Kennedy, and Reagan for inspiration about who we want to be and how we want to live.  We trust their words and appreciate their battles.

A second theme is that of politicians as idiots.  We discuss their foreign policy or political choices as being incredibly foolish, and bemoan the fact that it is nigh unto impossible to get a person with common sense into Washington.  Well, except for OUR local congressman, of course.

A third theme is that of the politician as intentionally out of touch; someone who specifically tries not to listen to the cares of common people, and just cares about looking and feeling important.

On his blog, NY Times columnist David Brooks extensively quotes Daniel Ellsberg’s book “Secrets,” and the passage is extremely revealing (I encourage you to read it before continuing with this post).  It highlights the fact that being on the, “inside,” really does change your view of the world and how you relate to people.  More than anything, it challenges some of our key paradigms in regard to politicians.

First, we see that our leaders do have more information than we have.  LOTS more.  And that should encourage us to have some humility about our evaluations of them.  As President Obama said recently, the difficult thing about being at the top is that whenever there are easy decisions, someone below you made them.  Only the extremely difficult ones get through.

Second, we see that it is extremely difficult for someone with that level of information to glean helpful input from those without the information.  Again, this should encourage us to some patience and humility when they seem not to listen, though it should also spark our creativity in making our voices heard about important topics.

And finally, it highlights the fact that politicians have to lie.  Constantly.  They essentially have no choice about it, and this means their lives are full of a compartmentalized, double-standard filled way of living and acting.  We can appreciate how difficult this is for them, but we should also be careful not to lift them up too high to our kids as heroes or role models.  We want our kids to see heroism in consistent faithfullness to God’s call and in living a life of virtue.

The more we realize the incredible sacrifices, egoism, ambition, and willingness to lie that go into creating our top politicians, the more we should find other avenues for finding role models.  But at the same time, those recognitions should also give us a deeper (if more nuanced) appreciation for our politicians and humility regarding the tough choices they have to make.


  1. Ben, I appreciate the consistency with which you continue to give us a fair view of politicians. It’s easy to allow our perspective to be driven by media fervor or crowd mentality.

    The only thing I think is a shame is that the politicians themselves don’t explain their job to us more often. I think this will become increasingly important as a glut of information becomes less the province of those with the power and the need to know and more the realm of those with internet access and interest.

  2. I think that’s a great point, Seth. When you think about it, it’s pretty patronizing to pretend your job DOESN’T involve having more information than constituents and sometimes knowing better than they do. I wonder whether that might be a significant contributer to the shrillness of our debates these days; we think, when faced with a set of options, our politicians are just idiots. And we become MORE sure of this as we gain access to greater amounts of information.

    Perhaps if they want us to trust them, they could help us see a bit more of what it’s like in the driver’s seat.

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