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In Praise of Politicians, Whatever Healthy Suspicions We Might Have of Them

Let’s hear it for the heroes of the republic: the politicians! I know it sounds strange, especially these days when our politicians keep getting caught behaving badly or foolishly and gridlock is the primary export from Washington, but democracy, representative democracy, just doesn’t work without politicians. And not just presidents. Not just people who are worth putting on the side of a mountain. All of them. Members of the House and the Senate, state legislators, mayors, and on and on: people who serve on city councils, school boards, and odd-sounding authorities that hardly anyone knows about. In the United States of America, we have some half a million people serving in elective office at any given time.

From the beginning, Americans have had a mixed relationship with their politicians. At the same time that the Framers of the Constitution were basing their system on political self-interest, others were already strongly opposed to what they saw as a new aristocracy, a separate class of politicians. After all, part of the promise of the Revolution was the idea that every citizen could meaningfully participate in politics, and the scheme of representation embodied in the Constitution appeared, to some, to betray it. In other words, the fear and suspicion of aristocracy that informed opposition to the King and the British was transferred rather easily into opposition to legislatures and politicians in general. The Federalists won the battle over adoption of the Constitution, but their opponents, in large part, won the battle over political culture. So the United States became a land of thousands upon thousands of politicians, part-time and full-time, but with a culture that regards them with anything from contempt to hatred.

I’m not sure it’s an altogether bad thing that we don’t properly celebrate our politicians; there’s certainly something to be said for a healthy suspicion of ambition, even if—oh, perhaps especially if—we embrace a system which depends on ambition. You remember what Madison says in Federalist 51: “Ambition must be made to counteract ambition.” The constitution, with its separated institutions sharing powers and federalism, depends on the self-interest of politicians to work. If our politicians were altruists, we’d really be in trouble; they’d be eaten alive, either by the remaining ambitious ones, or by the various and many self-interested folks outside of government. So we expect, and probably need, politicians who have a more-than-normally-healthy amount of drive, self-interest, and ambition.

But the truth is that in addition to their ambition, most politicians get started for good and, believe it or not, noble reasons. Either they can’t believe that the school assigned that terrible book, or they can’t stand the paperwork that they have to fill out, or because they can’t live with some injustice and just have to do something about it. They get into it because they sit there watching C-SPAN and know that they could do better. They get into it because no one who looked like them, or talked like them, or had their life experiences had, has ever done it before. They get into it because they love their country, their city, their neighborhood. Oh, sure, there are other motives, too, and some of them are less impressive … but that’s okay, too, at least most of the time.

So it would be nice if, for one day at least, we think some more generous thoughts about those who choose that form of public service. Although we remember Lincoln and Kennedy, and Garfield and McKinley, we could also stand to remember Hale Boggs and Nick Begich, John Heinz and Mel Carnahan, Mickey Leland and Paul Wellstone, Leo Ryan, George Moscone, and Harvey Milk, and so many others who lost their lives in office.

I think, on the 4th, it’s also especially appropriate to think about the politicians we honor the least—that is, the ones who did not become presidents. Believe, for a moment, in Madison: If you’ve ever worried about the power of the president, remember that the best hope for keeping it in check is the ambition of all those Members of Congress, no matter how petty they often seem. If you worry about the reach of the government in Washington, remember that the best hope for federalism isn’t in the futile dream that the government there will practice self-denial; rather, the best hope for federalism is that politicians in the states and in local government will try to do things themselves.

No, most of them aren’t risking their lives, and no, not all of them did things that I consider to be positive contributions. But all of them—especially the ones you’ve heard of—risk their reputations. All of them choose, for whatever reasons, selfish or otherwise, a form of public service. Even the worst of the lot. And without them, no democracy, no republic, and no freedom, as we think of it, including both public and private liberty.

Jonathan Bernstein blogs at A Plain Blog About Politics.