However, after suffering from politics for nearly three thousand years since the first recorded outbreak in Greek city-states, humanity has hope for a cure, and some of the most interesting work is being done here at Harvard. The 40-year old Institute of Politics is the experimental hope for reducing the number of politicians in the world. The IOP, as described by Jason Zenerle of the New Republic, serves as “a sort of halfway house for recently defeated politicians trying to reenter decent society.” This strategy of using rehabilitation to solve the political problem stands in stark contrast to the two ineffective methods that are currently dominant: exile and incarceration.
Historically, like most former British colonies, the United States’ primary strategy for dealing with politicians is exile. (Imprisonment is preferred across the world in places including China, Russia, Africa, the Middle East, and Latin America). When our forefathers initially landed on the American continent, they brought with them a theory of exile that originally developed in medieval England from plague prevention techniques. Every few years, the citizens of certain locales would determine the most dangerous politician and exile them for a few years to an isolated building—in England “Parliament” and in the colonies “legislatures”—in a remote location where politicians couldn’t hurt society and would survive off government pensions supplemented by periodic begging for funds. However, despite these 13 leper-colony-like areas, America couldn’t successfully control its political problem, which led to the American Revolution.
After the Revolution, America made its largest revision in its approach to eradicating politicians. Besides the numerous “legislatures,” the former colonies set aside a reservation in the swamps between Maryland and Virginia expressly for containing politicians. Every other year, communities would exile the individual with the most votes against him to the swamp reservation for two years. Every state also would select the two politicians with the severest condition and exile them for six years. Although this exile system has been in place for 226 years, it has simply slowed the infection rate instead of reversing the tide.
The deficiencies in large-scale government response to the politician epidemic have forced small private organizations to carry the burden of keeping our streets clean of politicians. The IOP has served as a model for this cause by attempting to rehabilitate the politicians with the most pressing conditions who fall through the cracks. The institute finds individuals who have returned from exile in the swamp reservation or by a few votes avoided imminent exile. These individuals hope to turn around their lives, and with the assistance of mentors who have successfully kicked their political habits, the politicians enter into an intense and disciplined program of detox.
The benefit that the IOP gives society by taking more politicians off the street is amplified innumerably by its educational mission. Every year, numerous “at-risk” students from the Harvard community attend intimate sessions called “study groups” at the hope of the staff of scaring the kids straight. The large number of these students implied a failure in America’s youth prevention programs. Despite naming schools after and erecting monuments for notable assassinated politicians, within some communities children don’t heed the warning and latch onto the glamorized image of politicians offered by television, movies, and especially video games. Real life encounters with actual politicians succeeds where state-mandated prevention programs of teaching civics and history in schools fail. Students leave knowing that government concentrations, debate teams, and The Washington Post aren’t bits of recreational fun with buddies to be “cool,” but rather the gateway to the brutal reality of being a policy-pusher.
Politics is curable. All that is needed is the willpower to stop using archaic ineffective measures and instead embrace the tools of a new strategy: rehabilitation. Harvard’s Institute of Politics is a good start. Hopefully across the country communities will create similar institutions to get the politicians out of our neighborhoods and off our streets.
Steven T. Cupps ’09 is an biological anthropology concentrator in Lowell House. His column appears on alternate Thursdays.