Many of our elected public servants are good, hardworking people. Unfortunately, many are also disingenuous, self-obsessed and self-promoting. They are not all that smart, but are all the while convinced of their own brilliance. I don’t think the presidencies of Barack Obama and Donald Trump have been disastrous like some say. But as men and as politicians, both missed more than a few opportunities to do both what is smart and what is right.
Why don’t more smart people go into politics? That’s a question that’s always been in the back of my mind. I recently had a conversation with my brother when he was home over winter break that made me consider it.
My brother Matt (actually a 2012 LT grad) might be one of the smartest people I know. Specifically, he has always had an interest in history and politics. He’s the kind of person who makes people smarter with the insights and connections he makes. However, he was far less interested in politics when I last talked to him.
I was confused. I know he is interested in politics, and if everyone like him is interested in politics, a lot of people like him will probably end up working in politics. Sure, he could be an outlier, but I’m inclined to believe he isn’t, given that elections are by no means the sure way to pick the smartest, most virtuous and most articulate candidates. Here are my best guesses as to why someone like him might lose interest or not have it in the first place.
Being a politician tends to degrade people. You’re at the mercy of the preference of imperfect people, so in order to keep your job, you first need to pander to their imperfect likings. You also don’t keep your job without owing people favors. You need to do imperfect favors for imperfect people who are not meant to be given preferential treatment by the constitutional system that gives you power. And playing politics with other politicians tends to be a shallow game that leaves one empty. How do we know this? Look at how horribly a president ages over his tenure. Nearly every single one (notably Lincoln and Obama) exhibits dramatic signs of aging from the stress of the rat race.
Political success these days, let alone meaningful contribution to the country, doesn’t come the way it used to. It used to be about putting in your time forming coalitions, making connections and compromises, and actually doing work to build a record on which you could run for higher office. Now it’s just about being famous and saying things that get you attention. Don’t believe me? Two of the most popular politicians these days (President Trump and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez) show the world this principle on the daily. Their meteoric rises to success followed absolutely no political experience; one can argue that in both cases it followed no meaningful life experience at all. They are very active on Twitter. Both show some political sense, but mostly ignorance. They attack members of their own parties like little children seeking attention. And after all this, both are hailed as the bright future of their respective parties. God help us all.
The best elected public servants will never be as good or as smart or have as much to offer as the best citizens of the republic. This may be our nation’s greatest tragedy. When it was founded, some of the best and brightest in the land pledged their lives, fortunes, and their sacred honor to one another at the conclusion of the Declaration of Independence. From this tragedy of poor leadership countless other tragedies have come and will continue.
When free to choose its leaders, you and I should have little faith in the electorate to make the right choices even a majority of the time. I do, however, wholeheartedly agree with Winston Churchill that “democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”