The success of Donald Trump and Ben Carson in the early presidential polls does not surprise me. In fact, the enthusiasm shown for these non-politicians matches what I felt in my brief foray into politics two years ago.
I was at the dentist’s office getting my teeth cleaned when I heard a news item on the television related to the United States Congress. The thought entered my mind that someone like me would do as good a job as the current members of Congress are doing. The thought did not merely cross my mind; it remained embedded there for the rest of the day. I would certainly vote for someone like me rather than vote for a career politician, but how many people are like me? For the rest of the day I pondered that thought, and at the dinner table I asked my family how they felt about the possibility that I might run for Congress.
Since the family’s reaction was generally positive, I decided to ask a few other people who didn’t know me as well as my family does. I started at the barber shop. While waiting my turn for a haircut, I asked this question: If two candidates are running for Congress, and the biggest difference between them is that one is a career politician and the other has never held a political job, who would get your vote? Both the barber and the police officer getting a haircut said they would vote for the newcomer. I told them that I was thinking about running, and they both approved and promised their support. Over the following days, I had similar conversations at the grocery store, at the bank, and at church. The most common answer was that people would vote for the newcomer. A few people said they would consider only the issues and not care about experience. One man said he would vote for me once, but he would vote for someone else next time–he figured two years in Congress would be enough to corrupt anyone. No one said to me that they would vote for an experienced politician rather than a newcomer.
Thus prepared, I contacted several officials of one political party. Several of them ignored me, and one made it plain to me that he considered me a nobody, not someone to take seriously. Others were cordial, though, and I was invited to address a meeting of county officials of the party, along with any other candidates that were interested. By the time of that meeting, three candidates had announced that they were running for the party’s nomination to serve in Congress. Two of the three were at the same meeting. One of them was a member of the state legislature. Like me, she showed up early to meet people and stayed for the entire meeting. The other was a wealthy man who had been appointed to various political positions but had never run for office. He came late, made his statement (taking considerably more than the three minutes we each were allotted), and left soon afterward. In my three minutes, I explained that I was still thinking about running, introduced myself, and commented that my barber and my banker both thought I should run. I made it plain to them that my political positions match those of the party, but that I would run a unique campaign, one designed to draw independent voters as well as the party faithful. The reactions during and after the meeting were generally positive, with just one woman phoning to recommend that I not run, because she felt that the other work I was doing was more important than serving in Congress.
During the following weeks I attended several diverse events, some directly sponsored by the political party, and others more removed from the party. I met the party’s eventual nominee for the United States Senate at the opening of his campaign headquarters I even attended a tea party meeting. Sometimes I spoke to the entire group, but other times I merely mingled and met people. These weeks were my peek behind the curtain, my chance to see how politics are really run.
The next step was to see if I could raise money to support my campaign. I began contacting the wealthy people I know who are connected to the party. This was the stumble of my campaign, as potential donor after potential donor said, “Well, J., I’ve already promised my support to my dear friend,” who turned out to be the wealthy man who was running. I had hoped to run a campaign painting him as the ultimate insider, with me as the true outsider to politics. On the other hand, as the ultimate insider, he had captured the financial and personal support of the people who meant the difference between a viable campaign and a campaign that would be ignored.
By Christmas I knew that I was not running for Congress. Some people in the party urged me to seek a more local position, as they had an opening on the ballot they wanted to fill. I looked into the position, spoke to a few more people, and thought and prayed for a while. Then I had to admit I just wasn’t interested in that job. I thought I could win the campaign if I put my heart into it, but getting my heart into it was not easy. When some of the people supporting me began fighting with other people supporting me over a state-wide issue, I decided not to get involved in any campaign. Since I had strong feelings about the state-wide issue, I gave my support to those people in the legislature that felt as I did. This meant drawing further away from those who supported the opposite position. I heard one of a pair of good friends say that their friendship had ended as a result of this dispute. I knew that if I was heading into a career where friendships are torn apart by professional disagreements, I would not be happy there.
Donald Trump and Ben Carson may be outsiders to the political process, but they enter their campaign without the financial handicap that I faced. One year before the general election, I am not surprised they are doing well in the polls. Voters in this country are hungry for new leadership, for a new approach to politics and government. Whether Mr. Trump or Mr. Carson would be able to keep their promise to change the system, Americans are glad to hear of someone, anyone, who is willing to try to change things. If enough people like me chose to become involved during some election cycle, things could begin to change. As long as no one tries to make any changes, things will stay the same.
I tried once. I’m not ready yet to try again. But I do agree with the many who say that the system can be improved; it can be made workable again. Anything else I can do to bring that change closer, I will do. J.