Politics is not bad. The FDR speechwriter turned conservative columnist Raymond Moley observed: “Politics is not something to avoid, abolish or destroy. It is a condition of life, like the air we breathe. It is ours to live with, as we must, to control if we can. Either we must master its ways, or most surely we will be mastered by those who do.” I used to recite that as part of my political speeches, when I was on that circuit.
I know that sounds high-minded, and our Founders were certainly not without their personal ambitions. Yet, their overriding concerns were to establish order, harmony and prosperity in our new nation. These three objectives are still paramount, with conservatives tending to put more emphasis on order, liberals more to harmony.
The question is how we play the game. I worry that over the course of our 200-plus years as a nation, we have seen, slowly, the pursuit of public life shift perceptibly from virtue toward ambition, from public service to self.
We have transformed our politics from that of “standing for office” (“Here I stand, take me and my thinking, or vote for the other fellow.”) to campaigns that are often painfully negative and often only for the uber-wealthy.
Candidates at the local level, for school board and city council, for example, often still do stand for office. And when I was running for the Legislature more than half a century ago, my opponents and I never said a bad word about one another. To do so was bad form. As a young candidate for the Legislature, I was able to raise enough money at beer-and-skittles, $5-a-pop fundraisers to run a campaign and pay for some ads and billboards.
Today, I fear, running for office, to win at all costs, has become more important than serving in office.
However, after largely ignoring the worldwide spread of the coronavirus for some time, Congress and the president did prove that, in the face of crisis, they could put polarization aside, come together and act boldly to address the problem.
Which takes me to the past. Pietas was one of the hallowed virtues of the Roman Republic. If I have it right, it meant something like, “Rome before self. Unselfishness in public life.” The virtues appear to have been honored most by Roman leaders from about 500 to 150 BC. For example, the general Cincinnatus was called twice from his farm, during existential crises in the mid-400s BC, to lead the Romans in repelling and smiting down enemies. Each time, the job done, the general quietly returned to the farm, giving up his dictatorial powers as granted by the Senate.
By the 140s BC, however, the historian Polybius recounts that self-serving ambition and greed had corrupted the virtues within Rome’s leading families. The siren calls of power — and grasping the money necessary to buy votes to achieve that power — had corrupted the Republic, which collapsed into an empire of ruling Caesars.
I worry that we might be on such a slippery path today, toward rule by billionaires, the rest of us but puppets in their game. In our past, political party organizations gave opportunities to “little guys” like Harry Truman and Richard J. Daley. But, alas, parties have withered; and now it seems only those with big bucks need apply to play in our important political game.
So, what to do? First, the effective use of low-cost digital communication may provide access to the voters for non-billionaires.
Second, robust use of public financing of campaigns, as in 13 states, could maybe keep the little guy in the game. Wealthy candidates who eschewed the limits of public finance would bear the onus of having dissed the rules that others accepted, which might help the less well-funded candidates a bit.
Third, maybe more civic-minded types will say, enough, and stand for office. They would mostly fall on their swords at first, yet maybe could ignite a trend that would start isolating the billionaires.
I have sophisticated political friends who would, I am sure, tsk-tsk that my musings here are daft. I think instead this a call for a reset of our broken American politics.
For many years, Jim Nowlan was a senior fellow and political science professor at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign. He has worked for three unindicted governors and published a weekly newspaper in central Illinois.