Considering a career in politics? Leave your idealism at the door

Kathleen Rooney Author, O, Democracy!
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On Friday, November 22, 1963, President John F. Kennedy was assassinated.

On Friday, November 22, 2013, conservative pundit David Brooks was on National Public Radio discussing the 50th anniversary of Kennedy’s death. When asked for his appraisal of JFK, Brooks expressed his disapproval — but not of Kennedy’s policies, per se.

Rather, Brooks said that Kennedy “made politics too utopian,” which “led to a complete disillusionment.” He added that the 35th president created the expectation that politics is not merely a “negotiation of interests,” but a noble undertaking that will provide “personal meaning” to those who answer the call to serve.

Standing in my kitchen listening to the radio, it killed me to admit it, but Brooks was totally right. I know from experience that anyone who is — as I once was — considering getting into politics out of idealism, or hope, or any desire to make a positive difference should think again.

For while I am way too young to have heard his inaugural address the first time around, I was indirectly influenced by the JFK-inspired yearning to bear any burden, pay any price, et cetera et cetera — as countless people were and still are. Growing up as an Irish Catholic in Chicagoland, the reverence with which I heard my family members speak of Kennedy helped set me on a path to a career in politics and a job in a U.S. Senator’s office.

So, yes, Brooks helped me see it: I got into politics thanks to a Kennedy-esque, service-based desire to ask what I could do for my country, and I found myself surrounded by … not that.

Over the course of roughly ten years, I worked as an intern, then as an intern coordinator, then as a caseworker, and finally as a member of the press team. At every level, my idealism — and that of any stray fellow idealists I happened to come across — was thwarted. I kept coming back for more, kept the hope alive, only to find it thwarted in new ways with each new task or position.

As an intern, I discovered that it’s not enthusiasm and new ideas that are valued, but rather obedience and sycophancy and the ability to not so much get anything done as to simply be quiet and look busy.

As intern coordinator, I discovered that I wasn’t supposed to try too hard to provide exciting opportunities or to help anyone learn anything, but instead to cultivate that appearance of quiet busyness in the interns who were now doing the work I used to do.

As a caseworker, I discovered that all I’d really be able to accomplish, no matter how hard I tried, was to shuffle the papers around efficiently. I learned that most of my fellow caseworkers just let their work pile up, because they understood that it barely mattered anyway.

On the press team, I discovered that press releases are not intended to get information out, or to change hearts and minds, but rather to keep the elected official happy — which is to say, in front of the eyeballs of his voters — while creating the impression of action where there probably is none, because just about every bill is doomed to die a slow, painful, and maybe embarrassing death from the endless uncivil stalemate that is the state of play in Congress.

So while I enjoyed working as a Senate Aide, I ultimately had to accept that it was a career suited not for the best and the brightest, but rather for the mediocre and the complacent. I’m not saying that all of my colleagues were mediocre and complacent; only that the politics industry, such as it is, disproportionally rewards mediocrity and complacency. I loved many of my co-workers,and I had a lot of fun with them, but the ones who did well at the game and advanced were not the motivated idealists.

And I worked for a good senator. Even though my tenure in his office did not end happily, he remains one of the few politicians whose voice I can listen to on the radio without wanting to puke. The sickness of the politics industry isn’t caused by this or that elected official, it’s far more deeply rooted.

I saw similar disillusionment at every level and on both sides of the aisle, from municipal to state to national, from liberals to conservatives. The people I saw successfully climbing the staffer ladder did not do so because of their ideological purity, but rather their self-serving pragmatism. Meanwhile, the idealists typically had to learn the hard way how things really worked.

Idealists are the cannon fodder of the political industry. They’re willing to work hard at menial tasks for little or no compensation because they believe in what they are doing. The career staffers know that the idealists’ impulse to make a difference is futile but useful, and they’ve learned to exploit them — not to further some nebulous and vast idea of The People, as in “we the people,” but to help themselves, as in “me the person.”

One final clarification: I’m not saying that it’s foolish to think you can make a positive difference in the world. I’m saying that you can’t do so within the confines of the politics industry.

The fellow idealists among my former coworkers have, in most cases, struck out on their own. They’re now entrepreneurs, or they’re running non-profits, or they’re making a ton of money in finance with the aim of doing philanthropy. These are all potentially effective ways to make the nation and the world fairer and better.

My former political idealism has been replaced by an informed disgust. If you are a young person — or any kind of person — who wants to get involved in politics and wants to make a difference in the world, take my advice: pick one. You can do either, but you can’t do both.