What's in it for me?

The late Thomas P. "Tip" O'Neill, doyen of the Massachusetts Democratic party and longtime speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, once opined: "All politics are local." What O'Neill meant to suggest was that -- even in matters of great national import -- decisions made by our elected officials would eventually be based upon what the "locals" (in their cities, towns, wards and precincts) thought, felt and wanted. Had he lived a little longer, I think Tip would have seen the need to amend his oft repeated remark. "Local" implies too great a spread. In the new millennium, all politics are now "personal."

Witness the flagrant philosophical U-turns made by several hard right, anti-choice members of Congress during last month's debate on stem-cell research. Ardent abortion foes in both the House and Senate deserted their conservative allies in order to help scientists more quickly discover cures for a host of debilitating ailments. One after another, they abandoned their "pro-life" stances, tearfully citing the damage that certain diseases have inflicted upon their own families as justification for their new, more "liberal" views. It was because they had personally dealt with the issue that they felt moved to reverse their positions.

Yet it remains distressingly clear that, unless these politicians are personally affected by a particular piece of legislation, they tend to remain locked in their ideological straitjackets -- even at the risk of harming other members of the population. In other words, when it comes to someone else's right to choose, an embryo is a human being. If you choose to abort it, you are morally repugnant. When it comes to their dear ole Mom and Dad, however, who may have Parkinson's or Alzheimer's or multiple myeloma -- and whose well-being may depend upon the secrets locked inside that embryo -- well, it's a different story altogether.

Looked at in this light, it also becomes more understandable in the age of "personal politics" why these same folks tend not to vote for things like universal health insurance or a raise in the minimum wage. With their huge salaries and perks, and the best health-insurance plan in the nation (paid for by us "locals"), no one in their families is ever directly affected. Out of sight, out of mind.

What is particularly annoying is that these cloying, conservative voices are so self-righteous in the trumpeting of their own families' plights -- as if it were a good thing to base their legislative decisions on what is happening inside their own four walls. In fact, as elected officials of a representative democracy, they should be making every attempt to ignore their own situations and base their votes upon what is right and good for the commonwealth. Making politics personal in this way distorts the principles upon which the system was founded.

But let's not heap all the blame upon the right wing. "Personal politics" was on display this past week in Orlando, and the perpetrators were decidedly left of center. At a local hearing sponsored by the redistricting committee of the Florida Legislature, hundreds of citizens gathered to give their input into the decennial reapportionment of the state's House and Senate seats, as well as its federal Congressional districts.

What they got -- at least for a few hours -- was an orchestrated litany by Congress-woman Corrine Brown's supporters, who followed one another to the microphone to extol her incumbency and petition the committee to leave intact "her" 3rd Congressional District.

As much as one may agree with Ms. Brown's politics or respect her exalted position within her minority community, it is still a perversion of the system to attempt to protect a sitting member of Congress -- or any other elected official -- by blatantly tinkering with the reapportionment process.

But it is very likely that the members of the committee will be kind to Brown. After all, in the age of "personal politics," they too will attempt to design districts not upon the tenets of equal voter-population and geographical compactness, but rather as a means to protect their own political fiefdoms. Giving in to the personal demands of Brown's supporters will give them the cover they need to rationalize their own shameless grabs for power. After all, nothing matters more than self-aggrandizement.

The founding fathers envisioned a polity in which each citizen would offer himself as the people's representative for a short period of time to shape policy based upon what was the greatest good for the greatest number of people. Today, "We the people..." has simply become, "What's in it for me?"