From time to time, in election season, I start to fantasize about alternate realities where I had gone into politics. It must be nice to matter so much to other people.
I ran for exactly one office in my life, the student senate in college. There were about 25 eligible voters for this one seat and we all knew each other. (Thanks to a peculiarity of the process, one which we had to constantly defend from being eliminated, honors students got their own representative). I got 22 votes, and my opponent got 3. Obviously my opponent voted for himself, and I didn’t begrudge him that, but the fact that two others voted against me really hurt. Maybe I took it too personally, but it was confirmation that I wasn’t cut out for politics. I want everyone to like me, and the 2 votes against me weighed more than the 22 votes for me (one being my own).
The actual senate part was kind of fun, though. It’s interesting to think back now and realize honestly — this sounds like cover letter blather — that one of the transformative aspects of my college life was student government. I had to get to know and work with people I had nothing in common with. I was a liberal, self-proclaimed “GDI” (i.e., not in a fraternity), and best known for blowing smoke in the student newspaper. The senate was dominated by suit-and-tied young Republican frat boys, or so it seemed to me. I saw myself going in and “shaking things up,” setting those squares straight with my impassioned self-righteousness.
The work of the senate wasn’t arguing with people, though, but getting along with them. In time I developed tenous friendships with the folks I’d readily ridiculed in the newspaper. On one memorable occasion I collaborated with some of them on a controversial and public (though meaningless and ultimately ineffective) public appeal for more state funding. The meeting was attended by the press and the college president, and they might have been stunned by the non-newsworthiness of a united student senate passing our proclimation without any debate. We’d already hashed everything out in the hours before the meeting, in the back office, just like real world pols.
I don’t know if it’s much different in the public sphere. Elections require divisiveness, polarization. Suddenly you paint them other guys are monsters, and the public is perfectly willing to see things in those stark moral terms. Once the whole thing blows over, the winners go back to their begrudging respect for each other and try to work stuff out.