The First Noble Truth of Politics Is Frustration

If now and then you find yourself a bit frustrated by politics, you are not alone. Politics is inherently, profoundly, maddeningly frustrating for all of us. Anyone who makes the choice to care at all about politics knows the frustration of losing a major election and seeing the other side take control of the agenda. If you have been around for any length of time you have also learned that winning a major election leads to frustration as well, as the elected leaders disappoint and the opposition continues to block major progress. (Obama supporters, does this sound familiar?)

There are all kinds of structural reasons for this including:

  • The checks and balances built into our political system,
  • The organic pendulum swing in voter enthusiasm,
  • The differences between campaigning (relatively easy) and governing (relatively hard),
  • The impossibility of reaching policy consensus in a large pluralistic population.
  • The inherent tension in a capitalist democracy (between one-person-one-vote democracy and one-dollar-one-vote capitalism).

It is never possible to get thousands, let alone millions of people to agree on the path forward for any sustained period of time. Our political system is designed to frustrate the efforts of any one faction to take over, and we are all members of a faction with dreams of taking over. Groups unite around taking power in campaigns, but then find differences on the specific choices that must be made in governing. And in the ultimate struggle, neither the power of the people, nor the power of money has ever been able to fully eliminate the other in our capitalist democracy.

This is only a partial list of root causes for frustration even among members of the "winning" party. But this is theory and we also have experience, and recent history provides plenty of examples (and a dearth of counter examples) to the general principle that win or lose, as sure as winter follows fall, to care about politics is to experience continued frustration.

Of course the dominant emotion among Republicans during the Obama years has been frustration. Partisan Democrats can empathize with how Republicans experienced Obama's 2012 re-election just by remembering how we felt when George W. Bush was re-elected in 2004. Certainly though, many Obama supporters can also relate to feelings of disappointment and frustration over the years of Obama's presidency.

Our point is not that Obama has been a disappointment; it is that all presidents disappoint and frustrate their supporters by their inability to deliver the future that seems so possible to everyone celebrating at the victory parties. We knew Obama would frustrate his supporters and we said so in November 2008 when the new president had just given a victory speech that essentially made the same point saying:

The challenges that tomorrow will bring are the greatest of our lifetime -- two wars, a planet in peril, the worst financial crisis in a century... The road ahead will be long. Our climb will be steep. We may not get there in one year or even one term.

Of course Obama has been a frustration to Democrats, Republicans and independents just as the two wars, a planet in peril, the worst financial crisis in a century, as well as huge increases in government spending and deficits had frustrated people of all political allegiances with George W. Bush.

As we write these words this is obvious, but time diminishes the frustration caused by some of our presidents. A realistic assessment of history would not forget how Bill Clinton frustrated his backers by, for example, welfare reform that split his base and the failure to pass health care reform that helped usher in the GOP wave election in 1994.

Republicans now may view the presidency of Ronald Reagan in glossy hues, but at the time there was no small amount of frustration that Reagan made deals with the Democratic Speaker of the House, Tip O'Neill, several Soviet General Secretaries, and Iran's Ayatollah Khomeini, while government spending and the national debt and deficits increased. All presidents frustrate their opponents and supporters. Frustration is the First Noble Truth of Politics.

None of this is meant to suggest it makes sense to give up on your vision or quest for progress. Progress is as inevitable as frustration, but understanding frustration and expecting and accepting frustration are important elements in being able to sustain the effort that helps bring about progress. A clear goal, an inspiring vision of a better world or a problem solved is essential to motivating people to join together in a movement for change, but it is folly to deny the inevitable frustration they will face in the form of external resistance and internal division. Instead, expect frustration, plan for it and use it to steal your own and your allies' resolve. As the song says, "Keep your eyes on the prize and hold on."