The Perils of Political Romance

KoAn, via Flickr (CC license)
Questioning romance may not be popular, but it’s vital when stakes are high.

This morning I finally figured out why I’ve been feeling so utterly disengaged from the inescapable frenetic quest for Presidential candidates.

Well, actually Canadian blogger Rob Hyndman figured it out for me in his post this morning: We Won’t Get Fooled Again. He wrote:

“…I don’t want a political romance, and I’m not hungry for a return to the halcyon days of Camelot. I want someone who has a proven passion and ability to fix a broken system. And until I see that in a candidate, I’m more wary than credulous, and I’m suspending my belief.”

This was part of Hyndman’s explanation of why he’s uncomfortable with Barack Obama’s bid for the presidency. But Obama is his point, not mine.

My point is that we should take a close look at the myriad problems caused by pervasive deep-seated romantic myths in our culture…

In American society, romantic myths are like Palmolive: We’re soaking in it. These myths include, “Passion, hope, and positive thinking can fix anything,” or “A determined individual can achieve anything,” or “Love conquers all,” or “You’re all I’ll ever need,” or, “We can bring back the good old days,” or “You’ll change if I just love you enough,” or “The good guys will always save the day in the end,” or — the grandaddy of them all, “And we’ll live happily ever after.”

Romantic myths are so attractive and compelling precisely BECAUSE they fly in the face of real-life experience. Thus, they offer a taste of innocence and youth. They promise whatever absolution or redemption you seek — if only you hang in there long enough, suspend your skepticism, and, above all, don’t stop believing. (I knew there was a deep reason why that Journey song always bugged me!)

I’m not saying that romance of any kind (from believing in Santa, to crying at a wedding, to feeling swept away by a candidate’s oratory) is inherently bad. Life and love would be pretty dry without romance. Even politics needs some romance — since charisma is a useful quality in leaders. I enjoy romance, and I wouldn’t want to have an intimate relationship without it. And I am fundamentally an optimistic and hopeful person.

That said, life teaches that romance alone is usually a very poor basis for life-altering decisions. While it may lift your mood during a hard time, by itself romance can’t solve problems. It functions by concealing flaws, gaps, and differences.

Romance is not a lie, but it is rather like enjoying movie: in order to really enjoy it, you must willingly suspend your disbelief. As much as we feel “swept away” by romance, in truth it has no power unless we give it our full consent (usually not consciously, that would diminish the emotional impact). We are not helpless before it.

When it comes to making major relationship decisions that will significantly affect your future (like who you’ll have a child with, marry, or choose to lead your nation), it helps to closely examine exactly what romance strives to obscure. Look for the flaws, and gauge what you can really live with — because you WILL have to live with some significant flaws, no matter who you choose.

Regarding politicians, it’s crucial to understand that all of them (especially at the national level) are less than fully truthful. They all make secret deals. They all pander and betray. They all make strategic, conscious decisions about who gets ignored or hurt. They all rely on plausible deniability. And often, their views and allegiances evolve considerably while in office — while they proclaim unwavering faithfulness.

I’m willing to forgive any politician these unsavory qualities. When you look at what really has to get done through the political process, they’re basically necessary job qualifications. The reality of politics is that it’s more about deals than ideals. The challenge is: Who’s able and willing to broker deals that will yield the greatest public good?

If we give political candidates permission to step back from romantic myths and engage in a frank discussion of political realities, we’d probably end up with a leader more likely to achieve more good and less harm.

For instance, how would the candidates REALLY balance powerful but diametrically opposed constituencies in order to move forward on thorny issues, such as healthcare or energy security? Forget the warm fuzzy talk of building coalitions — how would they exercise power to make and enforce deals? Which ideals are they willing to compromise in order to make progress? When were they dishonest in their past political work, why, and what was the result?

I would really like to know these things. I would respect any candidate who would be this frank. That, to me, is the kind of courage that real leadership requires. It’s sad to me that honest talk about what politicians really do is equated with political suicide.

Despite how disappointed and scarred our nation has been by almost every political romance, we still cling uncritically to romance myths — even to the extent of being horrified by anyone who dares assert that the emperor has no clothes.

This happens whenever romance myths are questioned in a romantic society, I’ve found.

At the end of the latest episode of Polyamory Weekly, host Cunning Minx recounted a recent uncomfortable discussion she had in a women’s networking group. The women (four divorced, and one unattached) were talking about relationships. Minx opened up a bit:

“I mentioned that I don’t believe that love and relationships last absolutely forever — that you find one person and that’s it. I think relationships last how long they’re healthy for, and it’s not necessarily forever. Everyone looked horrified that I’d dare suggest this — in stark contrast to their actual life experience! A woman who had just finished saying how she was ending a 30-year marriage because of differences with her husband looked horrified when I dared suggest that love and relationships don’t last forever.

“Yeah, we definitely have these romantic concepts ingrained in us.”

Indeed. I think it’s time to accept romance for what it is, and to stop confusing it with the reality of what makes life and relationships work. Romance may be the icing on the cake of life, but incessantly indulging your sweet tooth won’t make you (or your country) happy or healthy.

…Funny thing is, now that I’ve become aware of the romance myth in politics, I can let go of it — as well as the nagging guilt I’ve been feeling over not “being in love” with any of the candidates, or with the horserace. That’s a relief.

(Thanks to Mathew Ingram for the tip about this post, which I saw on his Twitter feed.)

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