I recently accepted an invitation to dinner with a friend and a few people in his network I had not met before. In making introductions and responding to the question of how we had first become acquainted, my friend replied it was through politics. At that explanation, one of our dining companions scowled and dismissively declared, “I don’t want to talk about politics!” Given the current state of our civic discourse, perhaps that was an understandable reaction, but what she said next was even more telling.
When my friend revealed that I had served in elected office, the woman who just a moment before wanted nothing to do with politics perked up, looked at me with newfound interest, and having misunderstood my friend’s use of the past tense, said, “Wait, you’re in public office? Which one?!”
Although I am no longer an elected official, I’ve grown sadly accustomed to this obsequious behavior. For as long as I have been in and around government, I’ve observed people’s curious infatuation with those who serve in elected or appointed political office. It’s as if public officials are hybrid creatures between the human and the divine, whose power we should revere for its own sake. Of course, this attitude takes its most virulent form when the elected official himself begins believing this is true!
This perspective (and its polar opposite viewpoint that politicians can do no good) does a serious injustice to the calling of public service in our republic, where self-rule is the foundation of representative government. It is based on the false premise that we live in a system centered on government itself, rather than the “government of the people, by the people, for the people” President Lincoln described – and the Founding Fathers envisioned less than a century before he offered those words at Gettysburg.
Over the past dozen or so years, this captivation has taken on an even shinier veneer as novelty, celebrity, and populism seem to have trumped experience, humility, and competence as qualifications for certain public offices. Is it any wonder that as soon as people have selected such a leader they quickly experience buyer’s remorse and start looking for the next celebrity to put on the pedestal of high office?
It may be reassuring that none of this is new. In the eleventh century B.C., the people of Israel clamored for a king (detailed in the eighth chapter of I Samuel) but in short order were disappointed in how Saul turned out. In the years that followed, David would commit adultery with Bathsheba and have her husband killed, Solomon would turn from God to self-worship and an adulating harem, and a divided kingdom would be led, with rare exceptions, by increasingly wicked kings. It really is true that there is nothing new under the sun.
One of the concepts we’ve been exploring at The Grindstone Institute comes in response to the celebrity worship that is so prevalent in modern society, whether it be in political arena or other spheres. Perhaps more than any other question with which I’ve been approached over the years is: “how do I run for office?” I’m confident many who ask that question do so with the best of intentions, a sincere interest in serving others, and a heartfelt desire to make a positive difference on the issues that matter most to them and their communities. But lurking not far away, particularly after one wins election to a public office, are the glitter of apparent celebrity and overblown self-importance that many of us are responsible for encouraging – or at least allowing – in our politicians.
We’ve written before about the narcissistic symptoms of Potomac Fever. As yet another national election cycle approaches and a sizable field of candidates forms, with each harboring the notion that he or she should be the “leader of the free world,” it would serve us well to pause for a moment and carefully evaluate the motives of each applicant for that job, regardless of political persuasion. Let’s all remember that those we choose to serve the interests of our society at-large are just as human as each of us. And let’s help them to remember it, too, by asking the questions about their candidacies a thriving representative republic requires.
In the final analysis, we need fewer celebrities and more leaders with their hands on the wheel that steers our fragile ship of state. When we choose to avoid talking politics or fawn over those who temporarily hold positions of public trust – which I recently learned can be accomplished by the very same person from one moment to the next! – we fall short of doing our jobs as critical-thinking citizens in a free republic.
As President Eisenhower observed, “Politics ought to be the part-time profession of every citizen who would protect the rights and privileges of free people and who would preserve what is good and fruitful in our national heritage.”
The Grindstone Institute is developing programs to help guide those who genuinely seek to serve their fellow citizens in elected office, the civil service, or the military. If you are interested in learning more, please contact us – or share this post with a friend who seeks to serve others.