As I watch the Democratic primaries unfold, I’m reminded of two things: First, how glad I am I never tried to be a politician. It looks exhausting. You have to be very comfortable saying the same things again and again and again. Plus, for everyone who loves you there’s at least one person who thinks you’re going to bring about the end of civilization, and two people who think you’re a professional liar, a belief they will use to as justification for not voting for anyone.
Second, I notice how politicians are like authors. When Daniel James Brown published The Boys in the Boat, the true story of how a group of University of Washington rowers defeated Hitler’s crew team in the 1936 Olympics, his first and most passionate fans, his core readers, were rowers. These were the people who most resembled the story’s protagonists. If the book had only been about rowing, those might have remained his only readers.
But the book was not about rowing; it was about fraternity and camaraderie, about winning against all odds, and, finally, about good versus evil (the Americans, for instance, won despite the Nazis cheating in the gold medal race). These are universal themes, and so the book spread in popularity well beyond the rowing community, to men and women of all ages, making it a bestseller.
Like an author’s core readership, politicians have their base, those people who either look more or less like the politician or identify strongly with them. Usually, however, and particularly if he or she wants to be President, a politician needs to reach out beyond this group, finding a way to cross racial, economic, or cultural lines. Some are better at it than others, and when I see one of them struggling, I think of some advice I give my memoir and personal essay students.
Namely, if you want to write about, say, your close relationship with your sister, write that story for someone who’s never had a sister. If you want to write about losing a child, write it for someone who not only has never lost a child but has never had a child, who doesn’t even want to have children. You may not reach these readers, but in seeking to understand what is universal about your experience, whether that is loss or love or fear or peace, you will understand that experience more deeply by seeing its connection to everyone.
That depth comes from seeing your suffering, and your joy, and your curiosity, and your love as ultimately greater than your unique, confined life. There is nothing unique about wanting to be loved, or to feel safe, or to feel valued. There is nothing unique about wanting to be happy rather than sad, at peace rather than at war. Yet it’s easy to forget as we scrabble around our little worlds, each traveling in our own circles, believing somehow people who live in different states, or different neighborhoods, or pray in different churches, or even read different books are somehow yearning for something different than we are. The yearning may take many different forms, but its source and its fulfillment remain the same.
One last thing about being a politician: You have to promise things on which you probably can’t deliver. Such is the complicated, frustrating, fractious nature of representative democracy. This is why I tend to pay less attention to what a politician promises and more to how they promise it. If he or she can speak authentically in a way that goes beyond identity and region and grievances with others, I’ll happily cast a ballot for that candidate. Of course, most fall short of this, but that’s okay too, I still cast a ballot. After all, they’re all doing the best they can, which, if I’m honest, is just like me.
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