Schadenfreude in Modern Politics: How Would You Judge?

Oct 31, 2010 | Updated May 25, 2011

"Nobody who walks into the valley of our political system emerges unscathed," observed David Brooks in his recent New York Times column, "Would You Run?" That comment is especially true for the two Senate candidates who are competing -- in the relentless and unforgiving spotlight -- for President Obama's former seat.

In Illinois, a cautionary tale of great rewards -- at the risk of perilous personal attacks -- is playing out, as political contenders vie for the title of "U.S. Senator" in a modern-day coliseum called "American Politics." Schadenfreude -- pleasure that is derived from others' misfortune -- may well be a part of "fight club politics," but it's not pretty. When we succumb to it -- indeed, indulge in it -- civility inevitably falls.

It's natural for us to make judgments when we observe politicians; they don't call politics a "spectator sport" for no reason. What matters, however, is how we judge them.

Sports fans of all stripes know how important the video replay is in helping us determine whether that ball hit the line or actually went out of bounds as the referee called it. In observing the contenders for Illinois Senate, I can't help but marvel at how the race is this close even though they seem to be from different political leagues: one a professional, nationally-ranked athlete, the other an earnest, but awkward, neophyte.

David Brooks marveled at Mark Kirk's "brilliant career," list of affiliations -- Cornell, London School of Economics, Georgetown Law, State Department, World Bank, etc. -- and past decade as a "fiscally conservative, socially moderate" U.S. Congressman, representing the northern suburbs of Chicago. Brooks noted that Kirk had stumbled along the way to being Illinois' Republican nominee. However imperfect he may be, I sympathize with Brooks' observation of how cruel and judgmental the stadium crowd can be. I increasingly wonder: who will run for office if it means having every foible magnified ten-fold and splashed across the Internet? Who will want to step out onto the court and compete if it means having their worst moment in their worst game judged repeatedly by a stadium crowd that didn't see the game in its entirety?