How politics can change us



How come there is such public distrust towards politicians, when all the politicians I know personally are trusting and trustworthy individuals?


Some potential explanations:

  • I am too close, friends with some, and so blind to what others with more distance can see.

  • Knowing some personally, instead of knowing politicians only from the news, I get a larger frame. I see not only polished answers, confidence (or the absence of it), broken promises, scandals – what the news focuses on. I also get to see doubt, hope, personal values, inner critical voices – what makes them ‘normal’ human beings.

  • Those I know are just not the ‘typical’ politicians that much of the public distrust is directed towards.

  • Those I know have just not been in the arena long enough or climbed to the higher echelons of political power, in short: ‘just wait and see’.


It’s hard to outright dismiss any of these explanations.


It’s the last one, however, that troubles me. It’s not so much the cynical attitude with which this is often stated (which I believe does not help and is damaging at scale). It’s that there may be some truth to it: that politics may distort and grind down even the most well-intentioned and genuine newcomers.


What is it about politics that can ‘corrupt’ those who get involved in it?

  • Power: it can increase a sense of control over one’s environment (even if that control is tenuous or an illusion), reduce empathy, focus attention on goal-attainment (reducing peripheral vision, being less circumspect, less open for dissent; it also means being willing to take more risks). Check out Ian Robertson’s ‘The Winner Effect’ for more about the neuroscience of power. Also see how this partly explains unethical behaviour.

  • Ego-fuelling environment: just picture the entourage of a politician, attending to their every need. Or better, read what Vaclav Havel, former President of the Czech Republic, had to say:

“I find myself in the world of privileges, exceptions, perks; in the world of VIPs who gradually lose track of how much butter or a streetcar ticket costs, how to make a cup of coffee, how to drive a car, and how to place a telephone call. I find myself on the very threshold of the world of the communist fat cats whom I have criticized all my life. And worst of all, everything has its own unassailable logic. […] But where do logic and objective necessity stop and excuses begin? Where does the interest of the country stop and the love of privileges begin? […] Regardless of how pure his intentions may originally have been, it takes a high degree of self-awareness and critical distance for someone in power -- however well-meaning at the start -- to recognize that moment. […] being in power makes me permanently suspicious of myself.” (Vaclav Havel, 1991, Sonning Prize acceptance speech)


You don’t need to be head of government to experience this; you may already get a taste of it when giving a speech, winning a vote or election in your local party, being interviewed or filmed. Beside detracting from one’s original intention to contribute through public office, having one’s ego fuelled, gets in the way of truly listening, connecting, and taking ownership.

  • ‘Us’/‘Them’ thinking: it’s what we have come to expect of politics: my side is right, the others are wrong, not just on a single issue but broadly speaking, as a matter of identity, of them being part of a different ‘team’. It’s telling that in his book ‘Think Again’, Adam Grant labels this a ‘politician’ thinking style which he opposes to the more critical ‘rethinking’ style of scientists. When that kind of thinking style has taken hold, it’s less about what would really do good and more about being on the winning team of an argument.


These influences are far from deterministic. Politicians can and do resist them. So it’s paramount to understand how and what to learn from that.


Because this is not just personal, seeing people we know and like get into politics and being exposed to these potential effects. It concerns all of us: these influences on our representatives shape their decision-making – which affects our daily lives.