Say you’re a newly-elected elected civic official whose constituents are clamoring for a public dog park. Seems like a good idea to you... Optimistically, you assume that the park will be a beneficial and non-controversial idea. So you begin to advance the proposal in good faith among your new legislative peers.
But suddenly you encounter all kinds of unexpected, nonsensical and even vicious opposition.
The powerful Cat Bloc PAC runs ads questioning why cat owners should have to subsidize the dog owners with their taxes.
Another legislator who recently lost his bid to get ferret and snake-keeping regulations changed feels jealous. Your dog idea seems to be gaining traction and gathering momentum, so he begins sharpening his political knives for insertion in your back.
Still others in the other Major Party assail your proposal as cynically motivated and “poll-driven,” pandering to the pro-dog voter demographic. (After all, their own motivations are debased, so they project that yours are, too.) They oppose it so that you can’t cite it as an accomplisment when you run for re-election. Then they turn the issue around on you, suggesting that you want to “increase taxes on senior citizens by expanding government.”
Meanwhile, the Chair of the Recreation Committee has his own pet project, a waterslide park, and he frets that funding for your idea may delay or even scuttle his.
Sensing an opportunity, the ferret/snake legislator cannily whispers in the Chair’s ear that your initiative is really a covert assault on his influence and seniority... You secretly covet his chairmanship, see. So the Recreation Chair sets about undermining all of your legislative goals, not just the dog park, while covertly spreading grotesque rumors about you on an anonymous chatboard that you’ve taken bribes from a PetCo executive with a weekend house in town.
You catch wind of these machinations, and try to reason with him, and by the end of the meeting you think you’ve bridged the divide... But then on the night of the big vote, he abstains, citing “support on both sides of the issue,” and your proposal narrowly misses getting the necessary weighted votes to pass.
What you originally thought was a no-lose proposition has now created a great deal of discomfort and headache for you within the corridors of power.
What’s your next move? The winning gambit would be to double down on the idea, by taking it even more aggressively and directly to the people:
Work the streets, and make sure your colleagues know you’re out there winning popular support daily. Have allies gather an overwhelming number of petitions in favor of the park. Inundate the paper with a steady stream of pro-park letters that make the case forcefully, or at least pull at the heartstrings. Meet with editorial boards to get their support. Arrange to speak on the issue before community and civic groups (from the Lions Club to the Neighborhood watch) to make the case. Create photo-ops, with appealing pictures of dogs enjoying their new liberty to run and jump and fetch, while their owners socialize and flirt on the sidelines. Give voters the info to contact recalcitrant legislators to make it clear their future support depends on their park vote. Make a full-court press, until it becomes politically impossible for those opposed not to get on the dog park bandwagon. Finally demand a second vote, and once you’re certain you have enough to prevail.
Either you win by redoubling your efforts and demonstrating that the will of the people still matters; or at worst you prove that you are leader of integrity, and get re-elected by the people who respect your hard work and principled stand.
But organizing a popular groundswell involves a lot of work, more heavy lifting than most politicians are willing to do—especially when it seems so much easier to just try to forge better relationships with a dozen or so insiders in City Hall, rather than dealing with the Great Unwashed on the sidewalk.
Thus even idealistic and tenacious leaders often will retreat from internal City Hall (or Statehouse, or Congressional) conflict. They circle their wagons, rather than sending out new scouting parties.
Following the failed vote, they meekly accept a “compromise” to have their cherished idea “studied” by a “task force”... which will bury the idea slowly, surely and quietly, temporizing with park supporters. This at least allows them to save face by pretending they haven’t entirely given up the fight, even though it’s totally lost.
The chastened new official begins to nod docilely to his elders who counsel that “you have to pick your battles,” and imagines that by “building political capital” now by letting go of the big idea, he will achieve greater things later.
But that dream deferred never gets realized. The politician gets no actual credit from his peers for caving. All he’s accomplished is to identify himself as an easy mark for more committed but less scrupulous power brokers.
During elections, We The People ostensibly are the main audience for politicians. They need our votes, and must at least appear to be attentive to our hopes and concerns.
Yet once elected, all but the most exceptional politicians turn their attentions to a new and far smaller audience: their fellow politicians, plus the staffers, appointees, committee members, and other insiders who populate the corridors of power.
Even the most outspoken reformers are easily sucked into the insider dialogue, and begin to forget who brung ’em to the dance. Rather than rallies and fundraisers and meet-and-greets, political life starts to consist of routine committee meetings, perfunctory roll-call votes, and partisan caucuses, held in drab-neon lit settings rather than the streetcorners, diners, factories, festivals kitchen tables and the other standard flesh-pressing whistlestops.
The terms of success become not Am I resonating with the people but Will the party boss take my calls, Will I get a good committee assignment, and Can I get a better office when the Minority Leader retires?
On the most mundane personal level, going along to get along becomes the main priority: avoiding conflict and difficult debate, so that meetings don’t become uncomfortable. These meetings are long and boring enough already, without getting gummed up with arguments, or, gosh help us, hysterical public input.
Politicians who have become afflicted with this chronic malady—let's call it regional citeitis*—then begin to defend their increasingly cautious ways with any number of pat phrases, homiles, and clichés intoned with the utmost sincerity:
“We must work together, and learn to bridge our differences.”
“We must forge relationships with our colleagues across the aisle... to get things done.”
“It is vitally important, above all, to maintain civility.”
“There are two sides to every story.”
“We can’t be swayed by those who view things as black-and-white, unlike us leaders who are able to perceive all the shades of grey.”
“Change is all well and good, but we can’t move too fast... or appear too radical.”
On and on the platitudes roll, implying that these patriarchal politicians are the sole adults in the room, the only ones who See the Big Picture. Each of these catchphrases appeals to the nearly-universal impulse to seen as moderate, reasonable and prudent. But in politics, these slogans mainly serve to cover up a lack of backbone and determination, justifying the slow abandonment of one’s campaign promises.
As these self-satisfied feelings become more inflamed, the next stage of regional citeitis is a growing irritation with one’s pesky constituents, culminating in more severe cases in outright hostility to public input. How dare these citizens email me with their ridiculous concerns!, the annoyed politico thunders. I mean, they don’t even use spell-check... and they almost never attend meetings! (The latter is a common fallback, ignoring that we live in a representative democracy which depends on elected officials to be vigilant and speak on our behalf.)
The same citizens who, on the campaign trail, cheered the politicians' call for more open government, civic engagement, public participation, and an end to “closed-door decisionmaking” slowly become an exasperating nuisance to the citeitis sufferer.
The public’s needs and wants and dreams create friction with the politico’s desire to advance within the closed circles of City Hall and/or their political party. The people want action and change, while the politician wants to get along with other politicians, and move up within their ranks: I’m the 2nd Vice Fundraising Chair for Gymnasium Decoration, hear me roar!
Any reform or improvement in government, even the most commonsense ones, necessarily will step on the toes of some entrenched interest. And few politicians have the stomach to see conflict through t end, and survice the parliamentary infighting that can result from trying to be responsive to public wishes.
And so it goes that many who sweep into office with reform and progress in mind begin to retreat, consciously or unconsciously. Except in the rarest cases, they will never return to the offensive to fight for their own and their constituents’ beliefs—unless led back either gently by the hand, or firmly by the nose.
So keep your eyes peeled for politicians showing symptoms of regional citeitis in your own local, State and Federal government. They need both our malediction, and also our help.
* With apologies for this clumsy term to the memory of my great-grandfather, the gastroenterologist Burrill B. Crohn.