We have contact with them on a daily basis, they are all over the news and they affect our lives greatly, yet they are also somehow very distant to the ordinary citizen: politicians. What they do and how they do it puzzles us. It seems like their behaviour is challenging the norms that rule our interpersonal contact in our daily lives, because they behave so differently. Often we have the feeling that they put on a mask. Some even believe that politicians solely pursue their personal interest and crave for evermore power – some even believe that politicians want to harm the citizens and the society. But there is more to a politician than just her personal traits – what about the policy outputs and their decision-making style? There are many facets to politicians, to what they do, do not do and should be doing. This easy 5 step guide will help you to make a better assessment of politicians, which will be helpful to understand the world of politics better. Most importantly, however, being able to properly understand politicians will help you to make more informed decisions at the next election, which, in turn, is incredibly important for the proper functioning of democratic systems.

Step 1: Language Usage

Although the technical aspects of being a politician are what ultimately affect people’s lives, we must not forget that these are also regular people with thoughts, beliefs, wishes, problems, strengths, weaknesses and so on and that these aspects naturally influence their professional behaviour. Of course, we cannot get to know them personally, but with some tricks we can sketch a broad map of a person’s character. Since politicians are trained and experienced in negotiations and working to push their agenda through, analysing the content of their speech is mostly ineffective, because seldom would a politician genuinely expose her premise. Hence, it is more useful to look at how a politician speaks. The main factor here is to look at the use of adjective attributes and their level of intensity. For example, the adjectives good, fine or nice are perfectly sufficient to describe a positive event, development or person. However, some people tend to exaggerate things by making excessive use of valuing adjectives, such as amazing, terrific, incredible and so on. The same holds true for descriptions of negative events and of other persons. For instance, we can additionally look at how a politician talks to and about other politicians. Excessively using extremely valuing language hints to an imbalanced character and low judgement skills. People who are incapable of judging things in a comparably neutral fashion reflect their personal perception through the use of strong language and also shape their responses to these problems in extreme ways. However, what is just an annoying character trait for conduct in our everyday lives, can be devastating on the political stage. Diplomatic ties can be severed and cooperation with other states can suffer from poor use of language. Further, it may also be that the politician deliberately uses such language, but is, in reality, a relatively calm and rational person. It would mean that the politician is using this kind of language, because she believes that it would help to influence the citizens in her desired way. This is equally dangerous, if not more, since it indicates that the politician is insincere and does not take the citizens seriously. Although we cannot know what the exact motive being the use of extreme language is, we can say that more extreme language and a harsh tone are solid indicators of an imbalanced character, which is always a negative assessment criterium for politicians. Of course, the usage of moderate language does not automatically make a great politician, but is a comparably reliable indicator for it.

Step 2: Flexibility

Turning to the more technical aspects of politics, one of the important factors of a politician is her policy orientation. Here, we need to assess whether a politician is flexible on policies and courses of direction. Let us think about tax policies for a minute. Taxation is the central tool to finance public institutions that enable us to have an organised societal life. In simple terms, the quality of public services and social security is in direct correlation with the taxation levels, as more funding increases the service quality. At the same time, however, taxation negatively affects saving and spending rates, which are economic factors. Hence, politicians need to strike the perfect balance between different factors by establishing an efficient taxation scheme. Because our societies and political systems are subject to constant change, there cannot be one perfect taxation scheme that lasts many decades. However, if a politician has a strong stance on this taxation matter – let us assume that she strongly defends low tax rates -, then she forgoes the opportunity to craft a more efficient approach to taxation in times, in which a high tax rate would be in the best interest of the nation. Therefore, it is very important that politicians display a high degree of flexibility, in order to be able to shape the correct responses to occurring problems. Unfortunately, party politics and ideological affiliations make it quite difficult for politicians to think freely and shape the required responses.

Step 3: Nation First

Politicians come from various backgrounds and their different stories also determine how they approach things. Therefore, it is natural that politicians have very different ideas about how to make policies. One interesting thought to bear in mind is that the political cadre of a state is also broadly representative of a society’s contemporary beliefs, norms, values and aspirations. Hence, there is no such thing as the perfect politician, because it is almost impossible to combine so many approaches, views, techniques, skills and traits in one person. In order to make a sound judgement on a politician, nonetheless, we should analyse her actions in the light of the nation’s interests. Be careful here, because all politicians claim to be acting in the nation’s interest. Accordingly, it is useful to be clear about national interests in the first place. Broadly, everything that enables a society to ethically advance directly or indirectly in the field of knowledge production can be considered as primary national interest. One major rule is that national interest never directly conflicts with other national interests; if it does, other interests are at play. For example, China’s expansion in the South China Sea is justified on the basis that it serves China’s national interest. China definitely gains great advantages by expanding there, but it is not a necessary action to secure the survival of the nation, nor is it an action that would be needed to further societal advancement – let alone the advancement of knowledge. On the other side, it is compromising economic growth and political power of the neighbouring states, which also hampers the production of knowledge. A Chinese politician defending China’s actions in that regard does not defend the national interest, but pursues a hidden agenda, such as prestige or personal economic gain or influence.

Another important factor to understand politicians’ actions to further national interest is to look at them from the perspective of longevity. Often, policies take years or even decades to unfold their effects, but incur high costs from the beginning. A good example would be policies on education systems: they are costly, take a lot of time and cause inconveniences. Until the reforms start to produce good results, the responsible politicians might have already retired. Many politicians put their personal interest before national interest, because they want to be reelected, which serves their personal interest. A good politician does what is required to elevate her nation – even if that means to risk reelection or to receive harsh criticism. Back in 2005, when Germany’s Angela Merkel ran against Gerhard Schröder, she openly criticised him for the controversial expansion of social security benefits, making use of popular discontent with those reforms. Years later in 2013, Angela Merkel stated during a televised election debate that Gerhard Schröder’s reforms were great achievements for the German nation. Although it cost him his seat, he acted in the nation’s interest, which even the opposition acknowledged.

Step 4: A matter of technique

The most important aspect, in the end, is what is manifested on paper. Consequently, we also need to look at politicians in terms of their technical knowledge. In step 3, we have seen that the actions need to selflessly display the deep regard for the nation, its interests, its prosperity and long-term ability to advance through the production of knowledge. However, the best intentions do not produce added value, if the policy outputs are not high quality. Evaluating policy outputs is a difficult task. Seldom can we single out the effects of policy-making, because they do not unfold in a vacuum, but are subject to many different influences and changing environments. Sometimes, there are miscalculations of by when the desired effects should be occurring and because they take longer, the policies are often changed before they fully unfold their effects. So, how can we analyse whether a politician is technically skilled, if we cannot really measure it via the results? The best indicator of technical knowledge in policy-making is, probably, the degree of transparency a politician displays in presenting the aspired course of action. Consequently, a politician needs not only to explain to the public and her peers the single parts of the policy proposal and how they correlate to one another, but also how the policies will likely unfold under different circumstances. Further, and only very few highly skilled politicians do that, it is important to account for why alternate courses were not taken. Every policy will face criticism and there will always be competing approaches to tackle an issue. A good politician regards them and formulates technical responses that explain why they are less suitable than the selected course of action. It may very well be that also points of criticism need to be addressed and even need to be integrated, because they strengthen the policy and facilitate the achieving of goals. A good politician regards a detailed discussion of these points as vital to the crafting of her policies. They may not always produce the desired results, but the way in which the politician got to the policy is then based on a sound methodology, which is a strong indicator of a high political skill level.

Step 5: If there are none, be one

Contemporary democratic systems are characterised by nepotism, goal displacement and elitism. Unfortunately, this means that the number of highly skilled politicians has radically decreased. Against popular belief, it is then better to abstain from voting if no candidate seems to satisfactorily fulfil all of the steps above. But what shall we do then? Democracy means that the population is sovereign and decides on how it wants to organise its society. Casting a vote every few years is not a genuinely sovereign action – it is rather a symbolic act. In times like these, it has become more important than ever that skilled people put in all their heart in the progression of their nation. If there are no people, who we can reasonably expect to elevate our respective societies, then we must become such a person.