Why are some shy people interested in politics?

Dude stole my game

As a child, I was both unusually shy and unusually interested in politics.  As early as the age of eight, I was reading up on campaigns and legislation.

I think that what appealed to me about politics was the same thing that made me so shy.  In politics, I saw people interacting according to rules that were explained in words and charts.  Those explanations represented a promise that political activity would eventually be comprehensible.  I could start by learning the rules, and work out from there in my efforts to figure out what was going on among the people involved.  Moreover, the adults I knew best, when the topic of politics came up, would speculate and try to puzzle out what was really going on among political figures.  Meanwhile, in the actual social life around me, I saw people interacting in ways that I found utterly mystifying.  In something like ordinary small talk, I couldn’t find any set of rules that I could start by learning, and it seemed that not only all of the adults in my life, but even all the other children knew exactly what was going on and couldn’t understand why I was confused.

As I grew up, I did find rules I could understand and follow in my interactions with others, and by the time I was college age I was about average in my number of friends and level of comfort in social situations.  As that developed, my interest in politics tapered off.  So one evening when I was in college, my phone rang and it was my brother asking me what a particular presidential candidate had just said in a televised debate.  Remembering me as I’d been several years before, he was surprised to find that I wasn’t watching the debate, and amazed that I had to get off the phone because I was going out on a date.

I’m still interested in politics, as readers of this blog will have noticed.  I do find it difficult to resist a political discussion when I’m among friends, and even more difficult to avoid mentally dwelling on political topics when I feel isolated from friends.  But I’m a married man whose wife is only mildly interested in politics as such, and we have a fairly active social life.  For my wife, politics is interesting mostly when it relates to feeding the hungry and stopping war.  She is a Quaker by conviction, and her religion puts those issues at the center of public life.  For many of our friends, politics is interesting as a way of building a feeling of team spirit.  They enjoy getting together with others who all root for the same political party, much as they enjoy rooting for the same sporting franchises. I recognize the importance of the issues and am not immune to the appeal of team spirit, but my background as a one-time obsessive who found in politics an intelligibility that eluded him in everyday social interaction inclines me to value process, impartiality, and fair play to an extent that is alien to most of my acquaintances.  I think that it is important that there should be people who have that inclination, and so I think that people with such a background, depressing as it undoubtedly is in some ways, have a contribution to make to the political life of the community.

It is probably best that we make our contribution in roles outside elected office, however.  I can think of a number of strong introverts who have attained high political office, and they haven’t generally turned out too well.  People who knew Richard Nixon all remarked on his intense shyness; it was by dint of great intelligence and self-discipline that Nixon was able to rise to the US presidency.  When that self-discipline broke down, though, Nixon plunged into a whirlwind of anger and self-pity that expressed itself in bizarre behavior, most obviously in regard to the Watergate matter.   Barack Obama seems to be just as deeply introverted as was Richard Nixon, though more self-disciplined- certainly Mr O has never allowed himself a public display like Nixon’s infamous 1962 “last press conference”:

I’m no fan of Mr O, any more than I am of Nixon or any other US president since Warren G. Harding.  While it is possible that Richard Nixon and Barack Obama may, as shy children, have been drawn to politics for the same reasons that I was drawn to it, their time as active participants in politics at the highest levels kept that experience from settling into a concern for process, impartiality, and fair play, and indeed the two of them stand at the opposite extreme from me in regard to those values.  So the role that people like me ought to play is not one in which they are directly involved in competition for office or particularly influential as individuals, but in which we are a subset of the population whose goodwill policymakers would like to have.  That’s where blogs each of which attracts about a hundred readers a day come in.  A site like this one is of infinitesimal significance by itself, but considering that a couple of hundred thousand of us maintain similar blogs, we as a group occasionally sway enough opinions that policymakers are wise include us as one factor in their decision-making processes.

There are other ways in which introverts can have an influence on the political process, of course.  Rich introverts can give money, introverts with special expertise can become staff aides, introverts with the time to devote to it can volunteer for campaigns and make themselves indispensable to parties and candidates, etc.  But all of these forms of involvement tend to engage the competitive drives, and can very quickly undermine the very qualities that give our contribution its value.  So something like blogging is essential for the shy citizen to do all s/he can to promote the common good.

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