It seems to be unfolding that Democrats will remain timid in actually curbing the current war policy in Iraq, and in the end a bad war will go on indefinitely. As a result, people will grow cynical about politicians to a deeper degree than ever. If a senator can't vote his conscience on an obvious wrong like the Iraq war, what hope is there for the whole breed of Washington politicos?
I'd like to argue against this view, which has been coloring public perception at least since Watergate. "Throw the rascals out" is a time-honored theme in American politics, and it arose again last November over the corrupt Republican Congress. If that election only brought in a new set of rascals, however, the whole system is beyond repair. Instead of jumping to that conclusion, consider why a politician doesn't vote his or her conscience.
--He doesn't have a conscience to begin with
--He is beholden to campaign contributors
--She is afraid of losing her base constituency
--She fears attack from powerful lobbying groups
--He wants to be a party loyalist
--He was told that the leadership needs him to vote a certain way
--She can't really make up her mind
--He's lazy or ill-informed
--He has a view of the issue which has no chance of winning
--She believes compromise is necessary for passing any law
--She weighs conscience in with other ethical factors, like protecting minority rights
--He is solely interested in expediting his own re-election
These dozen factors give a sense of the complexity of serious decision-making, and not just in politics. They expose our shared fallibility, which should not be laid exclusively at the doorstep of the Capitol. In truth, some of these factors working against conscience are onerous, some aren't. Some denote lack of character, others arise from genuine moral conflicts. Obligations shift and splinter all the time.
In any case, to brand these factors as completely negative is a gross oversimplification. We should realize that after walking into Congress clothed in the purity of our principles, every one of us would begin to vote against our conscience, either a little or a lot. We would try to fit into the system and to thrive in it, not only for selfish reasons but to help the people back home. Sometimes it's destructive to vote your conscience, as Sen. McCain may find out in 2008 if he remains a hawk on Iraq, a position that clearly reflects his conscience.
As long as cynicism blocks our view of reality, we won't be able to change what can be changed. As the old saying goes, politics is the art of the possible. Human nature can't be drastically altered, and neither can a closed institution like the U.S. Senate. Yet it's entirely realistic to cut down the power of lobbyists, expose congressmen whose votes are paid for, hold up to criticism anyone who votes out of laziness and ignorance. Fortunately, the American system is set up to make these corrections periodically, if too slowly and with not enough punishment when things go seriously wrong. As for the rest of the list, I believe in a little more tolerance. Politicians aren't a separate, corrupt breed. They are people caught in a decision-making process that challenges even the best conscience much of the time.
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