Knowing the Difference Between a Politician and a Statesman

If you’re reading this, chances are you live in a country where citizens can vote for their government leaders. It’s probably also a safe bet you either don’t hold most politicians in high regard, or don’t really care about politics at all.

There is one bit of advice I think is important for voters across the world to understand in order to neutralize their negative perceptions of politics, as well as feel more confident about their ability to use their vote to make a difference.

That piece of advice is this: know the difference between politicians and statesmen (stateswomen too, of course.)

Same as it ever was

Being disappointed in political leaders is nothing new. We can read the writings of ancient Athenian Greeks and see evidence of political promises going undelivered and the resulting public outcry for ousting the folks in charge. Just as it was back then, the key to understanding the true intentions of folks vying for public office is reading between the lines.

The optics of politics are rarely, if ever, projections of the political realities behind the scenes. When aspiring officeholders open their mouths, what comes out is a tightrope of carefully crafted sentences aimed at pleasing everyone and offending no one. Similar to reading your horoscope, it’s hard not to walk away feeling like your specific situation has been addressed, despite the generic and vague way in which the horoscope was written.

Hence it’s a good idea to make a habit of never taking what an aspiring or current officeholder says too seriously. Instead, look to their actions. It’s the actions, not the words, that create statesmen.

But what’s a “statesman”?

To get the “cheat sheet” understanding of what a statesman is versus a politician, get your hands on some American cash. By that I mean, most of the men featured on US currency are historically and universally revered as statesmen.

Benjamin Franklin for example - he’s the man featured on the American $100 bill. Despite being elected to public office only once, Franklin is considered “the First American” and premier statesmen of his time due to his guiding hand in the formation of the United States. As such, premier historical documents collectors hold the writings of Franklin in high regard for their depth and significance. To buy Benjamin Franklin signature documents is to possess a highly valuable piece of American history. Centuries come and go, yet Franklin’s political vision carries onward as does admiration for his contributions to society. That’s a statesman.

Then there is Abraham Lincoln, the man you see on the five dollar bill. He served as the 16th president of the United States, leading the country through a bloody civil war as well as moving the ball forward on the abolishment of slavery. His highly political actions at the time set in motion a sequence of events which helped to solidify a splintered nation for the next century and beyond. A president can be a statesman - it is indeed possible.

Far from perfect

Deciding whether a politician is also a statesman is not a matter of looking for political mistakes, personal scandals, and power abuses and finding none. If this were the case, neither of the previously mentioned American statesmen would be as respected as they are today.

Franklin, for example, was not exactly a great father or husband while helping to build a new country. He turned his back on a son born out of wedlock, meanwhile neglecting his wife in favor of gallivanting around Europe.

Lincoln openly defied the Supreme Court of the United States and threw political enemies in jail when it suited his interests. It’s commonly understood by today’s historical scholars that Lincoln abused his powers as Commander-in-Chief in order to prevent anti-war sentiment from growing throughout the Union.

What makes a statesman?

The common thread of statesmanship is not political, philosophical, or even philanthropic; it’s the recognition that even the most powerful person is still but a small player in the grand scheme of human progress.

As the little known and otherwise obscure 19th century, American theologian James Freeman Clarke once said: “A politician thinks of the next election. A statesman, of the next generation.”

It’s this message which serves to define the key difference between the two. Professional politicians concerned only with maintaining their position will always exist; the power and prestige are temptations too great for narcissists and sociopaths to pass up. Such folks ought not deter voters from seeking out men and women who genuinely care about the long term fate of their country and the world in general.

Benjamin Franklin, Abraham Lincoln, and the scores of men and women like them, had one thing in common: a vision of the future and an understanding of their own role in the pursuit of making it become a reality. Like the first mason to put the first brick in the foundation of a cathedral, a statesman knows they will not live to see the finished work, but they keep pushing forward anyway.

Whatever your personal political leanings may be - it’s important to have an eye out for statesmen in a never ending sea of politicians. It is these individuals which not only inspire voters to turn out for change, but play a part in making that change happen.

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