After hearing the uproar regarding the less than courteous words recently spoken by U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib about Hillary Clinton, words given in response to Clinton’s less than kind description of Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (with Tlaib’s words drawing laughter from two other members of Congress, including Minnesota’s Ilhan Omar), I immediately thought of the colorful way Tlaib described President Donald Trump and her desire to impeach him just about a year ago. In light of Tlaib’s apparent inability or unwillingness to always exercise control over what she says in public spaces, and the fair as well as unfair smack she gets for this lack of control, I couldn’t help but think she might wish to give the idea of practicing control some serious thought.
But then I thought about the insults President Donald Trump and many of his congressional and ordinary citizen supporters regularly throw at political opponents. And I wondered if despite the fact that Trump and many of his supporters and acolytes are routinely lambasted for their lack of dignity, could it be possible that Tlaib might be receiving even more disdain just because she is a Muslim woman of color? It’s very possible.
Then I let my thinking go on about politicians in general, and the things they say, shouldn’t say, and do or shouldn’t do.
Thousands upon thousands of politicians have served, attempted to serve, or downright took what they could from this country since independence from Britain was declared in 1776. We’ve seen a good number we would call brave and/or honorable. For example, African-Americans who served in Congress during the post-Civil War Reconstruction. Abraham Lincoln. Republicans on the House Judiciary Committee who voted in 1974 to impeach Richard Nixon, some of whom paid a heavy electoral price. Southerners who supported civil rights. Men who supported the Equal Rights Amendment. There are many more, most of whom will receive scant mention in most history texts.
Despite numerous righteous and courageous acts committed by some politicians, a fact that should surprise no sentient being is that politics, whether it is practiced on the local, state, or federal levels, is all too often a nasty, brutish business that can produce great personal, societal and financial benefits as well as exact great costs in all of those areas. This is true regardless of how Jeffersonian some political ads might appear, no matter how many episodes of “The West Wing” we may watch. The financial costs of office alone can make politics a very mean profession.
Back in 2013, Maplight.org found that the average price of winning or hanging on to a 2012 election U.S. Senate seat was more than $10 million. A House seat “only” required a bit less than $1.7 million. Raising an average of between $2,000 and $14,000 every single, solitary day (weekends and holidays included) is not a simple task for most. And one not easily accomplished by most people we would consider gentle souls who might be happier picking strawberries in sun-dappled fields than spending hours calling donors who may or may not serve wine in crystal caves. This would be especially so in an environment full of vicious social media, voracious 24-hour news cycles, along with wild accusations of fake news. People who can win and keep elected office in this sort of world are on occasion (and more) almost certainly going to say or do things they should regret with varying degrees of shame.
In the wake of the impolite things put forth by Tlaib, Trump and so very many others during this fractious election season, some have said it’s terrible that women politicians in particular should stoop to such disgusting levels. To that I’ll quote something a high school teacher, a woman active in the feminist movement of the 1960s and ’70s, told me: “Women politicians are just as capable as male politicians of tremendously conniving cruelty as well as incredibly magnificent achievement. When you see us successfully controlling the former, we just may be able to accomplish the latter.”
Mary Stanik is a writer in St. Paul. On Twitter: @mstanik0.