Running for Congress as an Introvert

I have run for Congress twice as a Democrat, but I might as well have run as an introvert. You may have heard of me had I won, but it’s important to note that the real reason that an introvert like me got the Democratic nomination was because nobody else wanted to run in a strongly Republican district (which fortunately is changing now and may turn blue this November).

I am passionate about politics. I find it very troubling that in the United States we leave millions of people behind. For many, it is economically. For others it is socially; still others, educationally. You know the drill: There are a myriad of ways to be left behind in any society.

I became more aware of this around the time that I was seven years old. Many Sundays I would go to St. Louis Cardinals games with my father in what was the first of three iterations of Busch Stadium. I knew that something was wrong by what I saw as we walked the five blocks to the stadium from where we parked. North St. Louis was different from the suburb where I had grown up. Virtually everyone was African-American, most of the homes were in disrepair, and the looks on many faces were ones of despair. Why was this so? I wasn’t sure, but I knew that somehow, some way, when I “grew up,” I would try to do something to in some small way remedy the unfairness in our society that I was experiencing for the first time.

I first visited Washington, DC when John F. Kennedy was president and then became even more committed to wanting to be a positive agent of change. My career choice was teaching, because (a) it was an opportunity to try to provide empathy and support to young people, and (b) by teaching in inner-city St. Louis, I was exempt from the draft, and this was during the Vietnam War.

I have teaching almost all of the time. However, by 2010, I wanted a larger platform from which I could address national and global issues. But I was scared to run for office. I did not think that I belonged. There were things that were absolutely abhorrent to me, fund-raising for example. As a person who largely sees himself as an introvert, I could hardly think of anything worse than asking another for money. Let me count the ways: (a) I don’t want to be beholden to anyone else, (b) the person I am asking may well need the money far more than I do, and (c) what gives me the right to argue that giving money to me or my campaign is a worthy endeavor?

Public speaking was something in which I had experience. It’s hard to teach without doing it. But there was never  a day of teaching when I wasn’t anxious about getting in front of the students.  Even more unnerving was my time as director of an independent school, when I had large audiences of, can you believe this, adults.

So in 2010, when I first ran for Congress in MO-02 (against the infamous Todd Akin), I wanted to reach voters, but I didn’t want to have to do it by reaching voters. Does that sound familiar to any introverts? Fortunately for me, the expectations were low. As far as party Democrats were concerned, the only thing worse than me running would have been for there have been no name on the Democratic side of the ballot. I limited myself to three or four campaign appearances a week.

Nobody endorsed me, but that was fine because it would have meant standing on a stage and saying disingenuous things about the endorser as he/she did likewise about me. There were no rallies to attend, because the Dems were very weak in the ‘burbs of St. Louis (as I said, fortunately that is changing now). There were “meet-and greets” and gatherings at voters’ homes. While those were never easy, they were small and contained. I had chances to recharge my batteries both before and after.

I like to say that I ran a campaign with integrity. I say this with reservations, because it strikes me that integrity is like honesty and courage, where there is no clear sense of what it is and what it is not. But let’s use the term integrity as a handle to describe what I was trying to do.

Attempting to run with integrity meant that I did not force myself to do “stupid human tricks,” the sorts of things that so many politicians are forced to do. I’m talking about mindlessly waving at everyone at a parade, kissing babies who might most of all want distance from a stranger, and dressing up in team colors, regardless of where one’s loyalties might lie.

I had the freedom to run this way, with a certain reckless abandon. Had I been in a competitive district, that would not have been the case. The Democratic Party would have cast me aside and gone with the traditional candidate, the one who is an extrovert and does not mind, perhaps even enjoys, the silly things that politicians have to do, including asking others for money and turning that cash around to run misleading or excessively self-promoting commercials.

Those of us who see ourselves as introverts often think that we have a special wisdom. I feel trepidatioud about saying that I would prefer that introverts have different kinds of insights from people who live more of their lives as extroverts. But introverts’ preferences for quiet, for space, for thought and small group conversations strike me as entryways for those who run for public office to communicate clearly with voters. They can resonate with voters in a way in which substance takes precedence over image. There is room for give-and-take about the issues that our society faces and to explore ways to try to solve them.

The more candidates running for office let their inner introvert out, the more politics will be acceptable, perhaps welcoming, to the 25 to 50 percent of people who fall on the introverts end of the intro-extro scale. I contend that this would be a very good thing, not only for introverts, but for the country at large.

I have just published a book, Political Introverts: How Empathetic Voters Can Help Save American Political IntrovertsPolitics. A basic premise is that our electorate does not seem to be up to the task of providing the country with the quality of leaders  we need. It fascinates me that, in 1968, the country elected Richard Nixon, and forty-eight years later Donald Trump won a majority of the vote in the Electoral College. During those intervening forty-eight years, we have reformed our educational system to presumably give us a wiser electorate. But no matter how much standardized testing we do, how many AP courses students take, how credentialed teachers become, we did no better in 2016 than 1968. So, my book advocates three types of change:

  1. Make politics more welcoming to introverts. What do we have to lose? Introverts are frequently more thoughtful, deliberative and empathetic (not always, but enough to make a difference). How do we make politics more introvert-friendly? Partly by making it easier for introverts to run for office, but also to downplay “silly politics” like rallies, and give greater importance to thoughtful conversation. Another big step would be to drastically shorten the length of campaigns, because two-year campaigns make it virtually impossible for introverts to recharge their batteries. In England, campaigns are generally six weeks long.
  2. Acknowledge that changing schools is the gateway to changing politics. We need to make it easier for “natural teachers” to get into the classroom. Forget the credentials; look for individuals who are primarily concerned about the well-being of each student, individuals who communicate well, who have a sense of humor, particularly the self-deprecating kind, and who most of all are empathetic.
  3. Promote structural change in American politics, such as eliminating the Electoral College. Get rid of gerrymandering and voter suppression. The houses of Congress should not be fiefdoms in which a Mitch McConnell can stifle not only the will of the minority, but also of the majority. Distribute the power equally among all members of Congress. The electorate will be more interested in government if they sense that it operates fairly and logically.

Change has to be thoughtful and deliberate. That’s how introverted people operate. So, everyone like me who spends much of their time on the introverted side of the continuum, consider trying to find ways to engage in politics and still be in your comfort zone. It’s not easy, but I think that that the county would be better off by letting introverts in to the political process. Let’s try to work our way in and concurrently maintain our dignity. It’s not easy, but well worth trying.