OPINION | WOODY BASSETT: Public service for the common good has eroded into “what’s in it for me” politics

Political leaders failing those they represent

Many years ago as a young man, I harbored a deep belief that politics were meant to be a noble calling to public service, an opportunity to make a meaningful difference in the lives of others. I still believe that now, despite the troubling descent of American politics in recent years.

From the very beginning the game of politics has been a "contact sport" in America. One need only study the 1800 presidential campaign and election between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson for proof of that. But in today's world, it seems more accurate to call the way we do politics a "blood sport."

Most thinking people despise what today's politics have become. It's not that we expect our politicians to be perfect in the performance of their duties or as human beings but we do expect them to be serious about their jobs and to conduct themselves like adults. Too many politicians these days make it all about themselves, forgetting it's supposed to be about the lives of their fellow citizens and the general welfare of the public.

It's not asking too much of those in positions of public trust to do the business of the people in a responsible, serious and honest manner. I respect politicians, Republicans and Democrats alike, who exhibit those qualities and do their jobs the right way, even if I happen to disagree with them on a given issue.

But it's the other kind of politicians (the irresponsible, unserious and dishonest ones) who are giving the high ideal of public service a bad name. They are the ones who are making our politics dysfunctional. They are the ones guilty of mindless, hateful and extreme partisanship. They are the ones who always talk the loudest but never listen. They are the ones spewing falsehoods and nonsense, making our decaying politics often cruel and ugly. Their strategy for political gain and power is simple: Keep the base angry, create chaos, never compromise and purposely divide people in every possible way they can.

The only things that really matter to these type of politicians are being on cable television, raising a big pile of campaign cash and crushing their opponent in the next election.

Surely public service should be about more than that.

What we see coming these days from the corridors of power in Washington and Little Rock is often frustrating and disturbing. A case-in-point is the ongoing session of the Arkansas Legislature. Rather than using my own words to describe my dismay with what's currently transpiring in our state Legislature, I choose instead to quote one of Arkansas' best and most respected writers and commentators, Rex Nelson, who also happens to be a conservative Republican. In his Feb. 5 column published in this newspaper, he offered his opinion about what ails the Legislature. It bears repeating.

Nelson wrote in part: "Too often these days we're left with humorless, self-important buffoons who don't know the meaning of wit. There are a lot of good men and women serving in the Legislature ... But too many legislators in recent years have stood by quietly, allowing the air to be sucked out of the building by these poseurs who specialize in performative anger ... The legislators I classify as the Know Nothings aren't serious. They're simply out to impress their generally uneducated, gullible social media followers. It doesn't help that the Republican Party -- that the vast majority of Arkansas legislators belong to these days -- remains intellectually and morally bankrupt at the national level ... "Nihilism" describes a number of our legislators. They have come to Little Rock this winter to divide and tear down rather than to unite Arkansans and build our state up."

The citizens of Arkansas deserve better.

Arkansas residents have a lot more in common than what divides us. But turning people against each other for political gain is a lot easier than bringing them together. Too many legislators and our new Arkansas governor seem to have chosen the easier path to power and governance. That's no way to lead a state. That's no way to lead anything.

Political leaders in Arkansas and elsewhere ought to pay more attention to the real world in which most of us live and less to the political world in which "winning" trumps everything else. Maybe if they spent a few days in the life of the average family, they might see how badly they are failing us.

We desperately need more moderation in our politics, and the public should demand it. We need to move our competing political parties away from the extremes and back much closer to the middle. The public should demand that, too.

Fortunately, our broken politics don't define us as people. We know that because we see, hear and feel the goodness in others in our daily lives in every community in Arkansas.