One of the challenges I face as a politician is that a lot of people don’t like politicians. This honestly doesn’t bother me too much. I work with politicians every day, and I don’t like a lot of them either.
But sometimes I do try to figure out why that is.
Scandals certainly have something to do with it, as do politicians who seem to always be losing an ongoing battle with the truth. But are scandals and lies enough to turn a huge percentage of the population against politicians? After all, none of us are completely blameless in our own lives, and folks are probably willing to tolerate a little humanity in their politicians. Perhaps those failings are only part of the problem.
And it was last Tuesday, as I sat in the State of the Union speech, when the final piece of the puzzle struck me.
Politicians refuse to treat people like adults. More specifically, we don’t tell people what they need to hear; we tell them what they want to hear.
And nowhere was that more apparent than in the President’s State of the Union speech last week.
While some commentators were lauding his compassion for the underprivileged, and others were accusing him of being a dictator, I was sitting in the back of the House Chamber marveling at the President’s overall tone.
He was making life sound really, really easy.
Are you in poverty? All you need is for the government to increase the minimum wage. Struggling to get a job? Solving that is easy, too: the government has these wonderful “high-tech” hubs (two of them!) where jobs are just there for the taking. Worried about your retirement? This new government MyRA will solve everything. It’s easy.
No it isn’t. None of those things are easy. They are hard. And they should be. With the exception of God’s Grace, just about anything of any value must be earned.
The minimum wage won’t raise anybody out of poverty. Do the math: at $10.10 per hour (the President’s suggestion) that’s about $21,000 per year. Poverty for a family of four is $24,000. The truth is that what gets people out of poverty is a full-time job: 97 percent of people who work full time are out of poverty. The problem is not the minimum wage, it is jobs. And getting a job, and keeping that job, can be hard.
The day after the State of the Union, the President said, “If you work hard your whole life, you deserve a good retirement.” At first, we might be slow to disagree. But, if we are being honest, is it true? After all, what if you work hard, but waste your money? What if you live beyond your means? Do you really deserve as good a retirement as, say, the people who put a little extra money away for years and years.
The President loves to talk about getting ahead by “playing by the rules.” Sounds easy, right? It isn’t. Playing by the rules means much more than staying out of trouble and paying your taxes. It means studying in school, developing good work discipline and personal habits. It means learning to show up for work, learning skills, and staying off drugs. (It even means learning to deal with people that you might not like – a skill the President could work on.) It means putting off some of the things we want today in exchange for having something else later on.
And none of that is necessarily easy.
Here is what the President is afraid to say: politicians cannot raise you out of poverty; politicians cannot give you a satisfying career; and politicians cannot magically give you a cushy retirement. Only you can do those things.
And to all my friends who would immediately respond “Yes, but government can help do those things,” I say: you are absolutely correct. Americans have the right to pursue opportunities, and politicians should work together to find ways to allow people to do that. But we also need to realize that the government can — and does — make it much, much harder to do that.
Bottom line: it’s always better to control our own lives. As we strive for things we all want — success, peace of mind, security, happiness — we are always better off relying on ourselves, our families, our churches and our communities, more than we are the federal government. In fact, relying on the government to provide us those things can be dangerous: goodies from politicians can be taken away as whimsically and capriciously as they are given.
We have the right to hear the truth about the State of our Union. And the President (and Congressmen) should be honest with us about what that means. That didn’t happen last Tuesday night.
I think I know why people don’t like politicians: because too many politicians treat folks like children. And until we realize that we need to speak to people like adults, we will find it difficult not only to get people to like us, we will find it also impossible to do something much, much more important: fix our country.
Rep. Mick Mulvaney is a U.S. Congressman who represents District 5 in South Carolina.