We are only a few months into 2019, and already the 2020 presidential election season is well underway. Each week, it seems that more candidates are entering the race, especially in the Democratic field. And as the country cycles through its political flavors of the week, social media has become overrun by passionate posts that read more like stump speeches in support of a given candidate.
Nearly every single person has an opinion about who this country should be supporting. And nearly every single one of them believes that their lives will be significantly better, or worse, based on who occupies the White House. But this gives politicians far too much power.
In order to truly better our lives, we need to rely less on political talking heads and more on ourselves. Only then can we begin to make a bigger difference and change the world.
Politicians Can’t Save You
Every four years, it is the same old song-and-dance as Americans make a pastime of rooting for political candidates in the same way they root for their favorite sports teams. Instead of merely holding the position of a civil servant, modern-day politicians have stepped into a celebrity role in which their brand speaks louder than their actual voting records. Beto O'Rourke and Bernie Sanders, for example, have the “cool” factor, which attracts young people willing to drop everything and campaign despite not fully understanding their stances.
These cults of personality are dangerous and they elevate politicians to an undeserved status. The more we place politicians on pedestals and believe that they can personally make our lives better, the more we relinquish our own sense of personal responsibility. And to be perfectly clear, that is the only way we can hope to better our own lives, or anyone else’s for that matter.
We’ve all heard the promises political candidates make when it comes to improving the lives of their constituents: Andrew Yang is going to help the little guy get ahead by providing a universal basic income. Bernie Sanders is going to be the first person in history to make socialism work and create true and lasting equality. And Elizabeth Warren is going to personally save every woman from misogyny by becoming the first female president. These are, of course, no different from the promises we have heard in the past.
Donald Trump was going to save the American middle-class and the businesses sector. Barack Obama was going to save our health care system. And, at the risk of sounding repetitive, Hillary Clinton was going to save us from misogyny and create seamless gender equality by becoming the first female president. But when the ballots have been cast and all is said and done, few people’s lives are dramatically impacted based on who sits in the oval office. And most of the problems that existed before the four-year term begins will exist afterward.
If anyone has any doubt of this, ask yourself if the health care system in the post-Obama world is really any better than before he came to office. It goes without saying that the “if you like your plan you can keep your plan” promise went out the window as soon as the realities of Obamacare made themselves known. Oh, and insurance policy premiums also skyrocketed.
Likewise, it would be equally false to believe that Trump somehow managed to save our health care by undoing all the damage caused by the Affordable Care Act with the snap of his fingers. And if you do believe this to be true, ask yourself: why were so many people shocked to find they still had to pay the individual mandate penalty on their taxes this year?
Additionally, no matter how many promises have been made to completely withdraw the troops from Afghanistan over the years, we still hear of American military casualties occurring in regions we should no longer be occupying. Even the recent tax cuts that were supposed to help all of us were not as impactful as we had once thought they would be. While corporate tax rates were slashed—and this is a good thing—individuals saw only small decreases when it came to their own tax rates. (And a small percentage saw their taxes go up.)
From a policy front, our lives change very little depending on who is the president. But there is a deeper issue here than one of just policy. In fact, it’s almost as if we view politicians as our personal saviors.
In Utah, when Mitt Romney was a 2012 Presidential candidate, many Utahns referred to him as the “white knight,” who had come to save our country and our Constitution. While this is the extreme of the cult of personality worship, it highlights the seriousness of the problem. The “white knight” reference implies that we need someone to come save us instead of realizing that we are capable of saving ourselves.
A politician cannot save us, not in the policy realm or our personal lives. But as individuals, we have nearly unlimited power to do this for ourselves.
We’ve Got to Save Ourselves
Objectivist and renowned American psychotherapist Nathaniel Branden cautions against waiting on someone else to come rescue you from your problems. In his book The Six Pillars of Self-Esteem, Branden writes:
No one is coming to save me; no one is coming to make life right for me; no one is coming to solve my problems. If I don’t do something, nothing is going to get better.
At first glance, this might seem like a bleak statement. But in these words rests the immense personal power we need to transform our lives. No politician can save you, just like no parent or friend can save you. If you really want to fix your life and be a tool for change on a grander scale, you’re going to have to learn how to save yourself.
As a young person in my 20s, my life revolved around getting Ron Paul elected. In my humble opinion, I still believe he would have been the best president this country has ever known, but that doesn’t negate the fact that in pursuit of getting him elected, I stopped trying to work on myself and improve my own life.
During that 2012 campaign season, I stopped talking to family and friends who disagreed with me, I routinely made excuses as to why I didn’t have to be kind to someone who supported another candidate, and I abandoned all self-improvement endeavors in pursuit of getting Dr. Paul elected. At the time, I truly believed a Paul presidency would fix all my problems.
Instead of starting small and fixing whatever I could in my own personal sphere, I looked to someone in Washington to rescue me. I made the mistake of abandoning everything right in front of me. My four-year relationship was on track to escalate to an engagement, but my preoccupation with the campaign resulted in a nasty breakup instead. Additionally, lifelong friendships deteriorated because I couldn’t seem to see past our political differences. And when it came to my family, I stopped attending Sunday dinners and holidays because I didn’t have time for anything that wasn’t centered around my political pursuits. Additionally, my own health was beginning to deteriorate because I couldn’t find the time to sleep well or eat properly.
And when the election season was over, and my dreams of a President Paul had not come to fruition, I was left with the harsh realization that my personal life was a complete mess. I had tried so hard to change things in Washington—something I truly had very little control over— that I completely neglected to fix what I could control. I did not realize at the time that I was capable of saving myself.
During an appearance on Joe Rogan’s podcast, psychology professor Jordan B. Peterson spoke of the importance of fixing your own life before you try to take on bigger tasks. He said:
…don’t be fixing up the economy, 18-year-olds. You don’t know anything about the economy. It’s a massive complex machine beyond anyone’s understanding and you mess with that your peril. So can you even clean up your own room? No. Well you think about that. You should think about that, because if you can’t even clean up your own room, who the hell are you to give advice to the world?
In my quest to elect Dr. Paul, my proverbial room had grown chaotically messy. And instead of doing what I could to fix it, I was out campaigning, attempting to tell other people what to do when I truthfully did not even know how to handle my own life. As Peterson also says,
My sense is that if you want to change the world, you start from yourself and work outward, because you build your competence that way.
Peterson’s sentiment actually echoes similar words written by Plato in a passage from The Republic, in which he writes:
But in truth justice was, as it seems, something of this sort; however, not with respect to a man’s minding his external business, but with respect to what is within, with respect to what truly concerns him and his own. He doesn’t let each part in him mind other people’s business or the three classes in the soul meddle with each other, but really sets his own house in good order and rules himself.
During that campaign season, I had ample opportunities to take small steps in rescuing myself, but I never did. Instead, I thought that I could bypass saving myself in pursuit of something greater. But this is not possible. You cannot run without first learning how to walk, and in order to be capable of great change, you have to first fix yourself. This doesn’t have to be some grand gesture, you can start small by cleaning your room, or even begin by simply organizing one small corner of your room. Eventually, as Peterson says, you can take on bigger tasks.
…and then maybe you’ll learn enough by doing that so that you can fix up your family a little bit, and then having done that, you’ll have enough character so that when you try to operate in the world, at your job, or maybe in the broader social spheres, that you’ll be a force for good instead of harm…
Imagine what you could do if you got your own life in order? This seems like a small step, but maybe by cleaning your room and getting your own life together you could start a business and create jobs for others. Or maybe you could be a more effective activist if you first did all you could to work on yourself before petitioning for larger change.
If you want to live in a world where women have more opportunities, don’t elect another woman to office; become the female who is bringing that change to pass in her everyday life. We make the grave mistake of assuming politicians are qualified to save us. But how many political candidates have actually made the effort to “clean up their own room” before attempting to save the country? The answer is probably very few.
All You Can Do Is Start With Yourself
We would each do well to remind ourselves that an election season will not make or break us as individuals. Unless you are willing to take the steps needed to clean your room and be your own savior, you cannot expect someone else to do it for you. So instead of arguing back and forth on social media in favor of this or that candidate, do something that will help you change your own life and, thus, better prepare you to make bigger changes.
As Confucius says:
To put the world in order, we must first put the nation in order; to put the nation in order, we must first put the family in order; to put the family in order; we must first cultivate our personal life; we must first set our hearts right.
No one is coming to help you, so you might as well stop waiting and start fixing your own life today.
This article was originally published on FEE.org. Read the original article.
[Image Credit: Flickr-Gage Skidmore, CC BY-SA 2.0; Flickr-Mark Nozell, CC BY 2.0]