published Thursday, February 27th, 2014

Martin: Politics as usual Elected official imposter syndrome

By David Allen Martin

Not too long ago, one of my favorite Chattanooga writers was taking a timeout from putting an article together. During that break, he Tweeted an article he’d found titled: “Why Writers Are the Worst Procrastinators.” The link flashed across my iPhone screen while I was, conveniently, taking my own pause from work. Of course, I clicked the link, thus procrastinating the project I was supposed to be completing a little longer.

Writers are some of the world’s worst procrastinators. When writing, my attention deficit disorder goes full tilt. I typically get more laundry, yard work and grocery shopping done when “writing” than at any other time. Most writers, though, have limits to putting off a project. As a deadline draws near, they’ll eventually zone in to complete their task. For me, that’s when I decide to stop checking weather.com radar maps. However, some writers are so paralyzed by the fear of turning in subpar work, they will struggle to finish projects at all. The author of the procrastination piece, Megan McArdle, pins this fear to what she calls “imposter syndrome.”

Imposter syndrome is a widespread dysfunction, affecting numerous professions. It is rooted in people’s fear that at any given moment, their incompetence could be exposed. Many folks, often the very successful, are hampered by the nagging concern that maybe they haven’t rightfully earned their status or that they’re not up to the tasks of an elevated position. Some of these people worry so much about being “unmasked as frauds,” that their production dwindles to a point that it jeopardizes their career. Lots of writers would rather turn in nothing than something that showcases their mediocrity.

On the flip side, others find coping mechanisms. Many people stricken by imposter syndrome “deliberately seek out easy tests where they can shine, rather than tackling harder material that isn’t as comfortable.” This is what got me thinking about politicians. I don’t think I’d raise too many eyebrows if I said a large number of elected officials perform below satisfactory levels. Heads from all points across the ideological spectrum would be nodding in agreement with that statement. But the reasons behind that underachievement vary. Some politicians are uncompromisingly bullheaded; some are more concerned with seeing their names in print than they are with developing good policy; some simply can’t see the big picture.

There are two sorts of elected underachievers that catch my attention the most, and I’d say some from both categories suffer from imposter syndrome.

One kind is the type who campaign on heady promises of tackling substantial issues but who then slide into obscurity once sworn into office. After Election Day, these men and women realize that there is a huge difference between campaigning and legislating. And without a strong command of the latter skill set, they settle back and obediently vote the party line all day, every day. There is safety in numbers, and by quietly joining the herd, their ineptitude doesn’t run a high risk of being exposed. They “shine” at this, the easiest of legislative tasks.

The other underachiever substitutes volume for substance. These individuals have discovered that if they make enough noise, they can attract media attention and rally their party base, regardless of the quality of their message. Most capitol buildings have their fair share of these legislators strutting through their halls. Instead of advancing helpful education initiatives or innovative job-creating measures, these underachievers champion discriminatory legislation based on a person’s sexual orientation. Or they rattle their sabers against those who have apparently made too much money. If noise levels determined political success, these legislators would be some of the most impactful people of all time. Instead, their only achievements are navigating safe paths to re-election by managing their imposter syndrome with hollow volume.

There are political imposters aplenty around us. Whether they’ve settled for obscurity or they’re chasing the spotlight, their underachievement endangers everyone. Unlike writing imposters, though, most of them get to keep their jobs.

A civic engagement advocate and history teacher, David Allen Martin writes from Chattanooga.

© 2014 by David Allen Martin. All Rights Reserved

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