Finally, we have grazed the waters of modern politics in discussion sessions. We recently discussed Max Weber’s ideas in “Politics as a Vocation” for qualities an admirable politician should have, and a debate ensued regarding whether having ethics of conviction (firm, unchanging stances/ideas) or responsibility (flexible values that reflect a concern for the future) were most beneficial. Although it was mostly agreed that both types of ethics were needed in some amount to advance a politician’s career, the variable most students struggled with in order to make their decision was the hypothetical politician’s current political standing. “Is he or she trying to win an election or make actual decisions in office?” tended to dictate student responses. The majority eventually agreed that ethics of conviction should be displayed to appeal to voters who share similar beliefs, but ethics of responsibility should be shown in office “to get the job done.”
But why were we only considering what would better the politician’s career? Why did we only consider their public image and likability under the context of them getting elected? And why did we gauge a politician’s “success” by how long they remained in office or how good they looked on paper?
I suggest that our concern as a class reflects a large portion of America’s thinking. We think of politicians like we would any other job, one in which popular goals are to move up the professional ladder, gain more power in the position, and make more money. Our focus, then, when attempting to determine which types of values would best benefit a politician, reverted back to this mentality. They must appear strong in conviction when running for office, but willing to compromise when they’re actually there. And these qualities would ultimately result in a more lucrative, successful political career.
But I challenge this definition of “success.” In fact, I challenge the general notion of what it means to be a politician that is seemingly present in the minds of most modern Americans. Historically, American government was one created to be, in the famous words of Abraham Lincoln, “of the people, by the people, for the people.” Our politicians were elected to ensure that this purpose was fulfilled—to be a voice for the voiceless and a representative of the people. Because it was understood that not everyone could be directly involved, politicians were to serve as the people’s surrogate. They were elected to serve us, and it wasn’t intended to be glorious. It was honorable in the sense that the masses trusted you to get their message heard and accomplish what they desired while in office, but it was understood that the privileges you received as a politician were for the purpose of making known the laments and desires of whom you represented.
And if we consider our current politicians (and those in years’ past) in this light and by these standards, almost all of them are failures. Many have referred to presidents like George W. Bush and Barack Obama as “imperial” presidents, citing their many executive orders as evidence. We can observe the many scandals and lies employed by Richard Nixon’s Watergate, Bill Clinton’s infidelity, and Ronald Reagan’s Iran-Contra Affair. We can look as far back as John Adams’ Midnight Appointments, Lyndon B. Johnson’s Pentagon Papers, and Ulysses Grant’s Whiskey Ring. Currently, 8% of polled Americans think that Congress is doing a good job, and 51% says their congressional representative doesn’t care what they think. Each of these examples represents an American politician’s selfishness, corruption, and/or disregard for the desires of the people. It seems we have failed to heed James Madison’s warning: “You must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place, oblige it to control itself.”
It seems that we’ve forgotten (or, at the very least, have allowed to become obsolete) what it means to be a politician in America. The waters have been muddied, and corruption, selfishness, and greed have replaced a concern for the people and desire to serve. We must not allow this type of government to remain the norm in American society. Instead, we should challenge the notion we’ve grown comfortable with that politicians are just like any other job; we must remember and assert that the focus should be on service, on speaking on behalf of those who cannot do so themselves. In our class debate, we should not have been pondering whether the hypothetical politician needed to win an election or appeal to other officials in office; we should have been asking ourselves what code of ethics would better the community the politician was serving. And that’s my stance in our debate: Whichever code of ethics the politician chooses to employ is irrelevant if they do not first employ a genuine concern for, obligation to, and desire to serve the American people.