The pursuit of political power and its dangers

Published on July 31, 2011 by

Political power is generally defined as the capacity to influence the public affairs of a community, a state and/or a nation. Political power may be acquired through either the electoral process or the appointive process.

The pursuit of political power relentlessly seduces the pursuer without mercy. This is because the person in pursuit of political power generally neglects to take a serious and thoughtful look into all of the reasons he or she is seeking political power. Additionally, he or she has entered into the pursuit firmly entrenched in the illusion that it is an act taken exclusively in furtherance of the community interest rather than an act of self-interest.

While a desire to improve the “public square” may provide the impetus to becoming Theodore Roosevelt’s “Man in the Arena,” the perks connected with political power provide overwhelming temptation. Few can resist the seduction.

Indeed, most refuse to acknowledge that the privileges bestowed on political leaders are even a part of their thought process. The possibility that one’s motivation to enter the arena may be informed by self-interest is buried so deeply in the unconscious, that the mere mention of the thought is immediately resisted and vigorously challenged.
The seeker of political power will argue to anyone and everyone who will listen, that it is common knowledge that entering into the world of politics is tantamount to a personal sacrifice of all that the average individual holds dear and sacred. This includes one’s life, privacy and family.

The result is rationalization.
How can anyone suggest that the seeker of political power is in search of anything other than improving the conditions of the community, they ask? Clearly, only someone in search of the “greater good” would undertake such an arduous quest filled with so much risk and so little self-interest, they explain. To paraphrase Shakespeare, “Me thinks he doth protest too much.”

Regrettably, recent history does not support such an argument. In fact, if by some stretch of the imagination, the person making such a statement has convinced himself of what he is saying, he only fools himself. Furthermore, that person’s ignorance of human nature may be so extensive that it may very well disqualify him from any meaningful and credible attempt to lead a community as an elected official.

The remedy for this situation may be as simple as spending a little time in the world of the inner self. Perhaps the inquiry into the uncovered and hidden crevices of the self will shed light on an aspect of the person, which is seldom explored, and is therefore unknown. As the Greek philosopher Socrates said, “An unexamined life is not worth living.” It can also be more than a little dangerous.

Just ask any of our recently disgraced politicians whose portraits have been removed from the Hall of the Powerful and Spectacular to the Hall of the Irrelevant and the Insignificant. (Notwithstanding the post disgrace success of John Rowland and Elliot Spitzer).

People in pursuit of political power are perpetually in the presence of temptations to greatness, and opportunities for self-aggrandizement. Without a clear understanding of their own weaknesses, limits and flaws, they provide multiple opportunities for those in a community who, through life experience, specialized training, or just plain old cunning, have become experts in seducing less experienced folks on the edges of power. Indeed, in many cases, a lack of self-knowledge can make the seduction as easy for the seducer as “taking candy from a baby.”

There is no shortage of examples of possessors of political power who have entered into, and remained, in the playground of personal privilege while simultaneously expressing overwhelming concern for the well-being of the community. Perilously, or perhaps tragically, there have been too many who have been willing participants in the seduction.

It has been such a common occurrence in our state that many in the media and in the community make references to Corrupticut, rather than Connecticut when speaking of the Nutmeg State.

This erosion of public trust and confidence in our political and appointed leaders places a greater burden on those who aspire to leadership. Repeated exposure to the abuse of power by political leaders has created such a high level of suspicion within our state and municipal community that paralysis and inaction have often resulted.

A sense of hopelessness has begun to take root and has had a profound effect on the powerful as well as the powerless. We all suffer from this corrosive atmosphere.
The residents of Bridgeport are on the threshold of a critical mayoral election this coming November. However, as in most urban centers in America these days, the election is usually decided in a September Democratic primary. The Republicans of Bridgeport have, without a doubt, completely abdicated any sense of responsibility to their mission of fielding candidates for political office.

In search of a reason for existing, and lacking any backbone whatsoever, this shadow of a political party has failed to identify anyone to oppose the incumbent mayor. It has however, been heavily engaged in asking its members to switch to the Democratic Party in order to vote for one of the Democratic candidates. The remnants of the Republican Party have apparently found this candidate to be particularly appealing.

Machine in control
As I have stated in this column before, Bridgeport is a machine city manipulated by a cadre of district bosses who decide the fate of those pursuing political power through the use of a well-oiled machine. It is no secret that this machine is busy doing what it does best: distributing and withholding rewards and prizes. The machine cynically manipulates the process through the ancient axiom, “reward your friends and punish your enemies.”
Should sound public policy result, it is purely by accident.

Due to the presence of an intense and profound culture of abuse of power in this city, it is critical for those who are new to the political arena to pause and take inventory. These newcomers must ask the twin questions, “Why do I aspire to public office and why do I long for political power?” The answer to these questions determines whether the candidates’ desire is truly for an opportunity to exercise authentic and caring leadership, or simply a desire to position him or her in order to enjoy the advantages and privileges of political power.

The questions of the heart must also be asked and answered. How will the acquisition of political power give life meaning? Will the values of Respect, Truth, Compassion and Justice inform decisions or will making a deal to keep power undisturbed be the guiding principle? Is seeking power an end in itself, or a means of contributing to the progress of our community?

Answers to questions such as these require time for introspection and prayer, as well as an earnest search for guidance from God, from whom all power flows. An examination into these areas of one’s life can undoubtedly provide some level of protection from the diabolical temptations of worldly power and fame. To ignore such an important and vital self-examination is to do so at one’s own peril.
And, since this is Bridgeport, an extra prayer or two is always necessary!

Carmen L. Lopez, a retired state judge, is a columnist for the Fairfield County Independent.