The more I think about how I make my decisions about who I want to be President or Governor or Senator or in the U.S. House of Representatives, it strikes me that it is not really about politics. It’s about humanity. I want men and women in office who seem to be in it for the noblest reason of all, public service. We’ve gone far beyond that hope, I suppose, but is it too late to expect at least some semblance of a public servant in those vying to be our elected and appointed representatives in our legislatures and courts?
With these positions come power and the promise of wealth and material comfort for the rest of your life. It has strayed far from the citizen legislators envisioned by the Founding Fathers who, themselves, were citizens rendering public service. From fair compensation for travel and time away from their fields and trades, the servants habe become lords of the manor with generous salaries, perks and benefits. The original vision of the public servant, still seen at the local level in town councils and school boards, is clearly not practical in our national and state governments today.
Some things just don’t fit today as they did in colonial times and the years after gaining independence. You can’t expect legislators to travel, live and work, even for those 133 days they are actually in session, on their own dime. We’d be relying on a bunch of rich, white guys calling the shots for a populace that is mostly middle class or lower. Aren’t we lucky that we haven’t reached that point yet?
As for our Founding Fathers and citizen leaders, had their support of self-government and freedom failed, they would have been hanged as traitors to Mother England and we, as British citizens, would have viewed them with disdain. Now we have different reasons for our disdain. What Benedict Arnold is to us today would be the way we would think of Benjamin Franklin had the American Revolution failed. It was Franklin, of course, who advised members of the Continental Congress that “we must either all hang together, or most assuredly, we will all hang separately.” (Note: I know “founding fathers” is not politically correct, but it is accurate, with few exceptions, and 27 of our Presidents were elected and served in office before women got the right to vote.)
Unless you know a candidate for high office personally, you have no real understanding of his or her sincerity or humanity. We mostly have to rely on the slick campaign advertising— none of them possible without the support of rich white guys— and they make the same promises and say the same things. Debates are more helpful, only because the real person behind the candidate might sneak through. As we see in the Republican Presidential debates, staying away from debates is also a campaign strategy.
It is now popular, for example, to be a “conservative outsider.” A guy owns and operates a successful garbage business and that qualifies him to be governor, as was the case a few years ago in one Pennsylvania congressional race, because he knows how “to haul out the trash.” We have elected a conservative outsider (formerly a liberal insider) as President, and, in actuality, the only one since George Washington who had never served in public office.
“Politician” was once a fairly respectable word, even when we liked to make fun of them when taxes were too high or the government let us down. A good politician needed to be skilled in what used to be called the “the art of politics” as part of “a deliberative assembly.” Today, one of the dictionary definitions of politician is “one who deceives or outmaneuvers others for personal gain.” Okay that’s not the first definition, which is: “One who is actively involved or skilled in politics.” Politics is by its primary definition, a science, as in “the science of government or governing.” Does that make politicians scientists and we the subjects of their experiments? It’s starting to feel that way as polls incessantly tell us how we feel about various issues.
So that’s probably why people run for office, bragging that they have never been tainted by politics while assuring us that they know how to make money and deals. Making deals, as I understand it, means negotiating, compromising and working with others, but few candidates boast about those skills, because it is more important to be a Democrat or a Republican. The chief concern is holding on to a job with a decent salary ($174,000 yearly in the Senate and up to $130,000 in the House, with Senate and House leaders making significantly more) and travel, health and retirement benefits that contribute to hiking the median net worth of a member of Congress exceeded $1 million in the 2016 Census.
Serving in Public Office Has Long Been a Career Choice
As for the “conservative outsider” image touted in campaigns over the years, two questions come to mind: 1. Since when have conservatives been on the outside? 2. Who do we think are calling the shots in Washington?
Even when we had that liberal black guy in the White House, he was beholden to a conservative Congress. Biden picked up where he left off, working with a Republican-majority House of Representatives more interested in continuing the fiction that he is there due to a rigged election than doing their job keeping the government functioning.
I am not really looking for outsiders when I vote, whatever their party or leanings right or left, because I think experience in working within the governmental process is important. I also want to see a record of achievement in past elective and appointed positions. What bills are your names attached to? What were your specialties in the positions you filled? How did you vote on this legislation or that and how did you explain your positions while in office?
It is true that there are brilliant people in business, academia and even entertainment who skip the lower political rounds and go on to become a governor or member of Congress. A professional wrestler, Jesse “The Body” Ventura, was elected Governor of Minnesota— as a third-party candidate at that. Yet even Ventura claimed previous political experience as the two-term Mayor of Brooklyn Park, a Minnesota city of some 80,000 people. The late Sonny Bono, a pop singer with his former wife, Cher, was, elected to Congress, and Al Franken, a comedian, was a U.S. Senator. You might say that people who were voted into elective offices from professions outside of politics, more accurately fit the definition of public servant than career politicians. Things are more complicated now than the first crop of some two dozen Senators, mostly farmers, between 1798 and 1815, who were paid six dollars per day of duty.
The real problem is that to attain public office today is you need to be wealthy or have access to wealth. Some argue that if you aren’t good at making money or raising money, you aren’t going to be much of a politician. I suppose there is some truth to that. After all, Washington and Jefferson were among the rich white guys of their generation.