Pharaohs declared themselves gods. Rulers from Julius Cesar to Queen Elizabeth II print and engrave their pictures on money. Every lord, duke or baronet who ever sat on a horse commissioned a statue of them riding it.
These are all symbols of individuals as nations—personal embodiments of a national personality.
We in the United States have had the sense to largely limit our civil religion to the veneration of graven images of dead heroes. George Washington did not order a quarter in his name. Thomas Jefferson did not design his memorial. Abraham Lincoln did not oversee the construction of his tunnel. Even fierce, lovable Theodore Roosevelt, whose ego was as broad as his enthusiasm, didn’t personally insert his face on Mount Rushmore with the trio just mentioned.
Still, politicians of all parties can’t seem to help confusing themselves with what they represent. George W. Bush is only the latest President to hit the “Those who are not with us are against us” theme. As in, those who are not with “us” the administration in every tax plan, every public statement and every troop deployment are against “us” the people of the United States. If that were true, the latest polls indicate the prisons aren’t big enough for all the traitors.
Closer to home, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger wins one special election on personality and loses another on issues. More recently, Fresno County Supervisor Bob Waterston berates a reporter who criticized an annexation decision for “beating up our community.”
I first listened to the “why can’t we work together?” argument when I was a college newspaper editor. I heard it often during my years as a professional reporter and editor. Each official who said it to me said, in effect: “You should support us because we know what’s right for the voters.”
Politicians represent the people of whatever city, county, state or nation elects them. They need to remember they are not all the people, and they are not always right. And if they forget, we need to remind them. That’s the responsibility of journalists—when they aren’t too busy chasing celebrities or trying to become celebrities themselves by preening on commentary TV shows. It’s also the responsibility of the rest of us—when we aren’t too busy chasing celebrities or trying to become celebrities ourselves by preening on reality TV shows.
Elected officials like to remind us what a tough job they have. Well, they’re right. But police officers, firefighters and lumberjacks have more physically dangerous work. Car salespeople get about as much respect. Nurses and parents are more emotionally drained. And waiters and waitresses do just as much hand-holding and ego-salving, often while providing their own uniforms.
The folks who run for office not only ask for these positions, they spend time and money convincing the rest of us to give the positions to them. For all voters endure we should be able to talk back a little, at least about the old rotting “Elect Me” signs that never seem to go away.
Criticizing officials is not the same as beating them up. Ask a prizefighter what getting beat up feels like. Even if it were, beating up on the President is not beating up on the United States, beating up on the governor is not beating up on California and beating up on a supervisor is not beating up on Fresno County, any more than beating up on this newspaper for having the poor judgment to run this article is beating up on journalism.
Counties, states and nations are larger than their representatives and made of sterner stuff. They are made of people, places, laws, traditions, beliefs and histories—the whole human comedy played out on stages whose boundaries are drawn by politics. Those stages are social constructs to be sure, but they are social constructs with which people identify, sometimes when they don’t identify with anything else.
Wayne Steffen is university editor at Fresno Pacific University and a former newspaper reporter who covered more political meetings than he cares to remember.