Those are the inspiring — yes, inspiring! — words of Wolfgang Schäuble, longtime German politician and Angela Merkel’s finance minister until 2017. When asked in a Financial Times interview why he had once compared himself with Sisyphus, who was condemned forever to push a stone up a hill only to see it roll back down, Schäuble said:
“You have to see Sisyphus as a happy man, because nothing we do in politics is forever,” he said. “You move things along a bit, and they can keep going forward, or start going backwards again.”
Those of us who have worked in government or toiled in politics know Schäuble is right. Absent constant vigilance, political vacuums get created and filled by special interests (or worse — such a vacuum is why Johannes Fest never forgave Thomas Mann for writing a book in 1918 that discouraged educated citizens from political involvement, maintaining that Mann alienated the bourgeoisie from the Weimar Republic, making it easier for demagogues to monopolize politics). In politics, if you’re not participating every day, you’re losing. As one example, earlier this week the most powerful special interest in Sacramento hit the roof because GFC legislators had the temerity to ask questions about retirement spending at an education finance hearing. Fortunately those legislators knew we were watching and that they have our support. Absent constant vigilance from groups like ours, fear rules the State Capitol. The greater our presence, the lesser legislator fear.
Another difficult feature of politics is that sometimes one has to support people with whom one doesn’t always agree. Recently we heard from a long time GFC supporter unhappy about a housing bill sponsored by some legislators we helped to elect. We understand her concern but explained that the electoral alternatives to those GFC-backed legislators would’ve been terrible. We operate in a real, not ideal, world, one in which each legislator has power over 29 codes and thousands of statutes covering everything from education to health, criminal justice, environmental protection, housing, and much more. We are never going to agree with them on everything, so we must work to amend offending bills rather than stop supporting good legislators only to see them replaced by bad alternatives.
“You move things along a bit, and they can keep going forward, or start going backwards again.” Non-participation by people like us is how California got into its current position of declining public services despite rising tax rates and surging revenues. With the daily lives of 40 million people, including six million schoolchildren, affected by the actions and inactions of the California Legislature, we must keep pushing that stone.