It is a bit embarrassing to admit—in this, my 47th year of life—that for a very long time, I believed the theatrically unethical behavior of certain elected officials was mostly a subplot in the story of American democracy. Behind the curtain were men and women governing with principle; of this I was sure. No matter how sensationally bad things appeared, there were adults in the room making sure things were under control.
Following the last few years of American politics, however, I wonder: How could I have been so naïve?
I came by my naïveté honestly, at least. As a military officer for a couple decades, I had to trust that decisions to send me into danger were considered and conscientious. Those who serve in the military often disagree with the foreign policy or national security views of those in power, but trusting in the competency and good faith of elected officials and the integrity of democratic institutions is critical if you want to believe that your service is honorable.
Now, out of uniform and paying close attention to the evolution of our hyperpartisan politics, I find the truth impossible to ignore: Too many of the purported caretakers of our democracy seem more interested in political celebrity than leadership. “Shame thy neighbor” appears to be the governing principle for a not-insignificant number of elected leaders. In their hands, democracy is not a process for delivering good governance in response to the will of the people; instead, it is a weapon for beating down opponents and a tool to sculpt a narrower version of America.
Too often, legislation on the issues Americans care most about—health care, education, immigration, taxes and the economy, gun rights, voting rights, abortion—becomes an occasion for partisan purity tests rather than an opportunity to continue perfecting our Union. There is little room for negotiation and compromise, and little reward for men and women of principle who disagree with the party line to instead vote with their consciences or their constituents. Appeals to unity give way to calls for more radical division. Our elected branches of government are filled with what Amanda Ripley calls “conflict entrepreneurs”—people who encourage and exploit conflict for their own ends.
In contentious moments that capture the national interest—the murder of George Floyd, the filling of Supreme Court vacancies, the response to a deadly pandemic, the outcome of presidential elections, the leaked Supreme Court opinion striking down Roe v. Wade—a horde of plotting partisans race to tell us the other side is responsible for our misfortunes. They trample each other en route to the nearest microphone or cable news hit, and then scroll their social media feeds for fundraising email fodder. They figure their antics will be justified if they can be turned into dollars and safe re-elections.
Like all the biggest issues in our democracy, the problem of unprincipled actors in public office is not that there are one or two bad apples too many; the problem is structural. The process of making it to Congress or the White House demands enormous sums of money, and this requires candidates and incumbents to spend an inordinate amount of time chasing donations. The campaign trail is an insatiable gossip’s dream: a buffet of personal attacks, intentional mischaracterizations, and outright lies. Our attention barometers are calibrated to respond to lurid rhetoric, not good ideas; nuance and detail do not register. The result is a system that is full of incentives for individuals who don’t have any ideas at all, and that offers little to those who would put service before politics and who want to solve problems.
Americans’ dissatisfaction with this system is alarmingly high. Four years ago, a Pew study found that more than 60 percent of those surveyed—including half of Republicans and 68 percent of Democrats—believe significant changes are needed to the fundamental design and structure of our government. Last fall, a further Pew study found that 85 percent of Americans believe our political system needs major changes or complete reform. But from ranked-choice voting to redistricting commissions, all the desired modifications to democratic institutions and processes that have garnered lots of attention recently have been less about fixing a broken system than addressing the anti-democratic actions of the people in it.
The Framers of the Constitution knew such a lack of principle would be an issue. George Mason—a leading participant in the Constitutional Convention who became a prominent critic of the Constitution—reportedly said in 1788, “You may have been taught . . . to respect the Characters of the Members of the late Convention . . . that they were an assemblage of great Men. There is nothing less true. From the Eastern States there were Knaves and Fools [and] from the States Southward of Virginia They were a parcel of Coxcombs and from the middle States Office Hunters not a few.”
What is the safeguard against the self-interested and unprincipled? James Madison writes in Federalist No. 10 that by electing trustworthy officials to mediate the will of the people and make it “more consonant to the public good,” our republic would enjoy an advantage over direct democracy. He imagined representatives as “a chosen body of citizens, whose wisdom may best discern the true interest of their country, and whose patriotism and love of justice will be least likely to sacrifice it to temporary or partial considerations.”
But he makes a more sober observation in Federalist No. 51: “But what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary.”
It has been an education in American politics to watch those who have taken principled stands on relatively uncontroversial issues wilt in the heat when democracy itself is on the line. Proximity to power and the taste of celebrity change them, pushing them to do or say or excuse whatever is necessary to get more proximate, to get a fuller taste.
And what awaits those who dare to stand on principle regardless of whether the party stands with them? Penalty and ostracization. The present system offers them no reward. Should we be surprised that politicians who thrive in our environment of toxic polarization—where, at best, half the country eyes the other half suspiciously, or, at worst, considers them enemies of the state—prefer what is undemanding and politically expedient to what is demanding and politically risky?
It is said that we get the government we deserve. That is BS. The men and women standing watch halfway across the world deserve better. Hardworking families who are one healthcare emergency away from financial ruin deserve better. The citizens forced to run an obstacle course of statutes and regulations just to vote, and the children who depend on public schools to prepare them for a productive and engaged civic life—they deserve better.
I hope to one day see new leaders ascend in a system reformed to reward character and principle. A system recalibrated so that money plays a less decisive role. A system capable of providing Americans the government we deserve, lest we lose the democracy we have.