empleomania

What is it that draws people to public office? To become president, or governor, or senator, or mayor, or school board trustee?

I suppose there are many things. Some people feel a strong sense of responsibility and want to make things work as best they can. Some people love power and want as much as they can get. Some people just love the attention.

I am occasionally reminded of this little bit from Kurt Vonnegut’s 1973 novel Breakfast of Champions:

Trout couldn’t tell one politician from another one. They were all formlessly enthusiastic chimpanzees to him. He wrote a story one time about an optimistic chimpanzee who became President of the United States. He called it “Hail to the Chief.”

The chimpanzee wore a little blue blazer with brass buttons, and with the seal of the President of the United States sewed to the breast pocket. . . .

Everywhere he went, bands would play “Hail to the Chief.” The chimpanzee loved it. He would bounce up and down.

Now, there are definitely politicians whose motivations and performance are better than that. But there are also definitely politicians who really just love the adulation, the pomp and ceremony, the crowds, the cameras and microphones, the bands… Today’s word is for these latter ones.

Empleomania is a weird-looking word, I’ll grant you that. You can see that it comes from Greek (via Latin) because it ends with -mania, as in pyromania, nymphomania, Beatlemania, and so on. But that empleo is unexpected.

Which is because it didn’t come directly from Latin. It went through French and Spanish first. Latin implicarebecame Old French empleiier, which has come to Modern French as employer but was also taken into Spanish to be emplear, ‘use’, ‘hire’; empleo means ‘job’, but the Spanish word empleomanía focuses on a specific kind of job: political office or the civil service. And, borrowed into English as empleomania, it has meant specifically ‘overweening desire to hold public office’.

In other words, a mania for being mayor, or premier, or governor, or prime minister, or president, or MP, MLA, MPP, MNA, you name it…

And, I mean, OK, if there’s a job you really want to do, if you do it well, who’s to complain? If you say it’s a good job and you encourage people to do it well, at least that’s something. What I especially don’t like are empleomaniacs who spend their time talking about how bad the government is and how politicians shouldn’t be trusted. Or who rail at other politicians for living on taxpayer money when that is exactly what they are doing and have always wanted to do. Or, of course, those who do their jobs viciously and to the great harm of many of those they are elected to serve.

Beyond that, empleomania isn’t intrinsically bad. At least it helps guarantee a supply of people for jobs that government requires and that many people would really very much rather not do. It’s just up to the voters to choose the ones who can do the job well.

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