Mistry: On the evolution of politicians

Viral Mistry, Staff Columnist

Do you want to know how I’m certain we are living in a perpetual nightmare? Like clockwork, as soon as the 2018 midterm election season ended, the coverage of the 2020 presidential election began. Suddenly, every movement by major politicians is a code to be cracked by the mainstream media.

Apparently, becoming president is the only reason anyone would bother going to Iowa. When I told my partner that, she noted that it’s pretty insulting to Iowans.

But the race has begun, and the Democratic Party, cast into the wilderness after an emotionally devastating defeat in 2016, is hungry. With no clear frontrunner, everyone and their mother seems to be interested in the nomination. There are already eight announced candidates, with a whopping 14 additional individuals expressing varying degrees of interest in running.

Almost a year out from the Iowa caucus, it’s an exercise in futility to figure out who will still be standing by the time votes begin accumulating, and that doesn’t even begin to address what they will be running on. It is becoming clear that many of the party’s rising stars wish to court a more progressive audience by championing issues like Medicare for All or the Green New Deal.

As someone who sincerely believes in these issues, I’m glad to see them get attention and support. But I’m also caught in a bind. I obviously want people who previously did not support these issues to change their minds and support them. But have these politicians actually changed their minds, or are they supporting these ideas out of political expediency? How do I know I can trust them?

Unfortunately, many of the party’s young rising stars have a contradictory history that reveals their political opportunism. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (N.Y.) made waves last year when she became the first sitting U.S. Senator to call for the abolition of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). When she was in the U.S. House of Representatives from 2007 to 2009, however, she supported ending sanctuary cities and expanding the reach, labor force and authority of ICE. Sen. Cory Booker (N.J.) now says he supports Medicare for All, despite having a long history of advocating for the pharmaceutical and health insurance industries.

Former U.S. Rep. Robert “Beto” O’Rourke (Texas) inspired liberals nationwide by running an unabashedly pro-environment and pro-immigrant campaign in the 2018 U.S. Senate race in Texas, despite voting to expand oil drilling in the Gulf of Mexico and to hire 5,000 new Border Patrol agents at lower hiring standards. Sen. Kamala Harris (Calif.) has recently called for sweeping criminal justice reform, including measures like ending the death penalty and legalizing marijuana. As the California Attorney General, she declined to support a bill that would require her office to investigate police officers who shot civilians, and as San Francisco District Attorney, she laughed at people who opposed her locking up parents of color for their truant schoolchildren.

Maybe these politicians’ opinions have changed. Perhaps dialogue and discourse with the everyday people affected by those policies have swayed their minds. But it is also possible that these politicians made those decisions because they thought it would advance their careers. Now that progressive values are in vogue, they will adopt the branding they previously rebuked. If for some reason in the future this tide shifts, they will drop the progressive sheen they have put on without a second thought.

I agree with much of what these candidates say and claim to support today. But ultimately, I still need credibility and authenticity. I need to believe that you aren’t simply saying these things in the hopes of getting elected, that these policy positions and moral positions represent a part of a core belief in a better and more equitable world.

The true test of character is what you do when doing the right thing and the popular thing are different. Some individuals choose to do the popular thing in the moment and later regret it, and change accordingly. We should be supportive of that change.

But a leader’s moral compass doesn’t change with the wind, it changes the wind with its own resolution. As we look to 2020 with the hopes of breaking out of this perpetual nightmare, we should be skeptical of every politician’s record. We should ask ourselves, when the options are to do what is right or what is popular, what will this person choose?

That should be our litmus test for the leader we need.

Viral Mistry is a fourth-year biology and cognitive science double major who is also minoring in chemistry, history and philosophy. He wears many figurative hats around campus, but if you ever see him, you can guarantee he’d rather be in bed reading a good book.