In a blog post today, Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen says that the problem with former Congressman Anthony Weiner is that he’s not more like Margaret Thatcher. Actually, I would say he has that backwards; the problem with modern politics is that too many people want Margaret Thatcher, when they should want Anthony Weiner.
Weiner is the subject of a fascinating New York Times Magazine piece, along with his wife, Huma Abedin, who was Hillary Clinton’s right-hand woman during her time as Secretary of State. The piece describes Weiner’s fall from grace two years ago, which largely happened because he sent out pictures of his penis (mostly, but not entirely, clothed) to some women he “met” on Twitter. In the piece, Weiner is clearly looking for some kind of public forgiveness and political redemption.
And, according to Cohen, this is a mistake. Cohen clearly believes that politicians should be more like Margaret Thatcher, who was famous for not really caring what people thought about her.
Now, that picture of Thatcher is a caricature–of course she cared what people thought about her. First, because she’s human and humans are social animals, whether we like to admit it or not. And second, because you don’t win elections without trying to convince people that you are doing the right thing. If you truly didn’t care about the public’s opinion, you wouldn’t bother campaigning–and Thatcher most certainly campaigned.
Still, the image of the politician who does what they think is best, public-opinion-be-damned, is a powerful one in American politics. Many reporters and pundits hold it up as the ideal.
And I want nothing to do with it. The heart of democracy is elections. We are democratic because we hold regular, meaningful elections for the highest offices in the land. Our leaders must stand for election–which means that they must strive to be liked by the public.
Ultimately, that’s the public’s only leash on our leadership. If our leaders stop care about being liked–if they truly stop care about whether the public will support them or not–then there is nothing to stop our leaders from enacting whatever outrageous policies they want to. There is nothing to stop them from openly taking bribes or ordering their subordinates to have sex with them at every opportunity.
Democracy works in large part because our leaders want to be liked. It’s that desire to be liked–to want to run in future elections, and win those elections–that keeps our politicians in line. When politicians lose that fear–that’s when they get dangerous.
So if I have a choice between an Anothony Weiner-type, who cares what the people think, or a Margaret Thatcher-type, who doesn’t–well, give me the Anthony Weiner every time. Because as a voter, I can control the Weiner-type politician. The Thatcher-type politician may have “political courage”, but I have no control over them once they are in office. And as a country, we’re all better off if the voters remain in control.