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Why do Politicians Have Such a Bad Reputation?

Michael Pollick
Updated May 23, 2024
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Sometimes, it seems there is a difference between public service and politics, although the two concepts are supposed to be interchangeable. Citizens may support their hardworking elected representatives, but passionately disdain power-hungry dirty politicians. Why do so many politicians have a bad reputation when their job descriptions seem so noble and self-sacrificing? The answer can be a little complicated.

One reason certain politicians have a bad reputation is the election process itself. A life of public service and law making is not an occupation for social introverts, so many candidates for local offices are already notorious overachievers with more than enough self-confidence. Candidates for political office are often very ambitious by nature, and with ambition can come a level of moral and ethical flexibility. Some bad reputations develop because the politician has already had to compromise any number of personal beliefs in order to gain votes or popularity.

There is also the adage that power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Some politicians have a bad reputation because the power of the office has corrupted them in some way. Professional lawmakers, judges and others in position of power over citizens are constantly approached by lobbyists, special interest groups and influential private citizens who all want them to provide favors. Many politicians do have enough integrity to resist corruption, but unfortunately some are not as strong. A politician under significant pressure can make some questionable decisions, which in turn could lead to accusations of wrongdoing or deriving personal benefit from an office.

Historically, there have been numerous examples of dirty politics practiced by equally dirty politicians. Unfortunately for the majority of honest office holders, these incidents often dominate the public media. Consequently, a number of effective politicians have a bad reputation only by association. If one politician is capable of dirty tricks or dereliction of duty, then they may all be equally capable of some wrongdoing. This general perception of politicians becomes even more pronounced during election campaigns, where candidates have the leverage to expose each other's political and personal shortcomings.

Professional lawmaking and public service does require a certain amount of personal and professional sacrifice, since many private sector jobs are more lucrative and less demanding than politics. Sometimes, a politician gets a a bad reputation because he or she is driven people with good intentions, but also has poor managerial skills or a controversial public persona. Some very effective politicians look bad on paper, but are in reality well respected in the political arena.

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Michael Pollick
By Michael Pollick
As a frequent contributor to Historical Index, Michael Pollick uses his passion for research and writing to cover a wide range of topics. His curiosity drives him to study subjects in-depth, resulting in informative and engaging articles. Prior to becoming a professional writer, Michael honed his skills as an English tutor, poet, voice-over artist, and DJ.
Discussion Comments
By anon957729 — On Jun 22, 2014

An honorable and moral upbringing should be one of the most important requirements for governing others. A person with a questionable past like a lot of us, should probably not hold public office, even if they have the right to. Just because one has the right to do something doesn't always mean that right should be exercised.

The justifications that led you to do those questionable things in the past, as well as your view of the world because of your life experiences stemming from those choices will only follow you to the position of a leader. Sooner or later, your true colors always shine through that invisible cloak of pretense that you wear so proudly. No matter the greatness of your aspirations, it is our past that makes us who we are today. We can't change the past, so it stands to reason that we can't change who we really are. no matter how much we pretend. --Cornelious P.

By jessiwan — On Nov 29, 2013

In my opinion, we need a new type of law that is specifically designed with publicly elected officials in mind. Basically, if a politician fails to deliver on his campaign promises, he faces a jail term. There will be referendums held at the end of each public official's term. The people will decide whether the officials they elected fulfilled his/her promises or not. We need this law.

By doglover139 — On Jun 29, 2011

Because politicians make so many promises about what they're going to do for their country, yet they never fulfill them.

By anon142380 — On Jan 13, 2011

I agree with both of the posts and the article in itself that the pressures of such a demanding job can change a persons objectives.

I also agree that not all politicians are corrupt, power hungry monsters, however some are. And very publicly at that and the one question I have is: why do people allow it?

If I hired someone who told me he would fix the leak in my roof and it just ended up worse I would he able to hold him accountable for it. So why is it okay that some people will say whatever they can to win an election but have few consequences once they gain that seat and change their tune to a much more self-indulgent number?

By anon20644 — On Nov 04, 2008

Is there a self selection factor as suggested in the article? Some who might make good officials may not want the public scrutiny of their lives. Others may not care for the daily activities associated with the job. Still others are excluded because they do not appeal to enough supporters. Finally there may be something in the social milieu in the District of Columbia or state capitals that leads to a change in the person. Sometimes I have thought that there must be a virulent brain virus inside the Beltway that adversely effects the thinking and thus the behavior of Federal elected and appointed officials. We see what seems to be a good normal person go to Washington and the next thing we know they are behaving quite differently from the way they formerly and especially differently from what was expected by those who elected them. However, when Al Smith was asked what to expect of a candidate, he wisely said, "Let's look at his record." I usually don't quote Democrats, but, if one says something wise, I will quote it. Hope springs from the human breast, but reality is.

By anon20636 — On Nov 04, 2008

In politics, the main thing is to win elections. Unfortunately, the rules by which elections are organized are established by the very ones who get elected. Also, there is no difference between a senator or congressman who did an extremely dirty campaign and one who did a honest, positive campaign. Once elected, the two are equal in congress/the senate.

As a consequence, it is not the most honest who gets to win, but the one who does all that's necessary to win. So the ones willing to ... use flexible principles have an edge over the ones who stick to their principles and don't do anything immoral in order to win an election.

As a consequence, the political class is formed mostly of people shy of no compromise, for which winning any competition is their most important guiding principle. The ones for which ethics are more important don't get too high up in politics.

That is, in my opinion, why politicians are generally viewed as corrupt and unethical.

Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick
As a frequent contributor to Historical Index, Michael Pollick uses his passion for research and writing to cover a wide...
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