A Politician, Not a Businessman

It’s Time to Sing the Praises of Politicians and the Political Vocation

I can remember the chill that ran through me the day I saw the slogan in print for the first time. I was teaching at the University of South Carolina campus in Aiken. It was about a dozen summers ago, and I was driving along Dougherty Road. The lawn sign encouraged me to vote for a candidate in a local election, and beneath his name was the promise —

A Businessman, Not a Politician

So much of where we find ourselves today can be traced to the growing persuasive power of that promise. Scorn for politicians is not new, of course. Far from it. The Reagan era and its praise for private business over public service was only a climax that followed a growing, libertarian distrust of government that grew steadily in the postwar era as though the Great Depression had been forgotten entirely.

But the comparative confidence we have come to repose in women and men with a background in business is quite new. That confidence is a leading cause, in my mind, for how we have come to elect the first president in American history with absolutely no previous public service. It is as though we have given up entirely on the idea that political life is a vocation to service, and that governing requires particular values and skills we do not find in the private sector. We have abandoned those ideas now to our manifest peril.

I am thinking about all of this in the light of a Vanity Fair report about the Trump Administration’s abandonment of a national testing strategy last spring. The whole report is awful, but this part especially grabs our attention —

Deborah Birx, the White House’s coronavirus response coordinator, was reportedly sharing models with senior staff that optimistically — and erroneously, it would turn out — predicted the virus would soon fade away. Against that background, the prospect of launching a large-scale national plan was losing favor, said one public health expert in frequent contact with the White House’s official coronavirus task force. Most troubling of all, perhaps, was a sentiment the expert said a member of Kushner’s team expressed: that because the virus had hit blue states hardest, a national plan was unnecessary and would not make sense politically. “The political folks believed that because it was going to be relegated to Democratic states, that they could blame those governors, and that would be an effective political strategy,” said the expert. That logic may have swayed Kushner. “It was very clear that Jared was ultimately the decision maker as to what [plan] was going to come out,” the expert said.

Most of the commentators have gotten this wrong. You can find plenty of people lamenting how “politics” made this decision. But that really gets it backwards.

Kushner (and, the Trump Administration) did not think as politicians think. They thought as businesspeople think. There is a difference.

The businessperson thinks in zero-sum terms: everything is a competition, and my winning is all that matters. Business is a blood sport, and there is no room for sentiment or human feeling. Especially the way the Trump Organization always has understood business, the imperative is to kill or be killed: run out on suppliers, abandon workers, declare bankruptcy, stay ahead of everybody else, and win.

That is completely different from political thinking for two reasons — one idealistic, the other pragmatic. And, the two reasons are related.

The idealistic reason simply boils down to the oath of office that every public official takes, a promise to serve the whole public. It is the reason justice is blind and it is why politics stops at the water’s edge. At some point, our differences with each other matter less than the fact that we all are in it together. There are moments when more abstract ideas like justice and national interest become concrete. No matter how partisan the public official may be, virtually every person who has served the United States before very recent times has recognized a limit where personal interest gives way to those more abstract ideas.

Think of the most corrupt president in modern history before Donald Trump. Even Richard Nixon did not burn the Watergate tapes. Public officials always recognize that there are moments when we cast partisan differences aside and we come together. In fact, the COVID pandemic is the first national calamity I can think of that has proven to be more divisive than uniting. There is a reason, and it is the leadership we have.

Our public servants are not angels, of course. And that gets us to the second, more practical reason why politicians have different instincts from Trump’s and Kushner’s. Politicians know that history will have the last word. There will be a judgment one day. And, all of political officeholding is an audition for the judgment of history. There is no immortality for politicians who loot the republic for their own gain. Every politician who wants to see herself on a stamp or himself carved into marble knows there are lines that cannot be crossed. Politicians cannot be trusted for much, but they can be trusted this much. And, it is more than we can trust those who have that kill-or-be-killed business mindset.

If there is a lesson in all of this, and if there is one thing that four years of Donald Trump should teach us, it is that we need to recover some of our regard for the political vocation. Politicians are as human as any of us. But there are easier ways to get rich and there are less demanding ways to become famous. Most politicians genuinely want to be public servants, and what often seems like flip-flopping or corruption usually turns out to be the awkward attempt to balance awkwardly imbalanced priorities — the needs and desires of the hundreds of thousands of people they represent. It is harder than it looks.

The world of politics has no customers. Every person is an owner, and every owner is equal. It has its own intricacies and its own problems, and they are different from what is found in the world of business.

Does the Trump Administration seem like something we’ve never seen before? There is a reason, and this is it. If you’ve had enough of this experiment, then today is the day to recover some respect for politicians and politics.

Steven P. Millies is associate professor of public theology and director of The Bernardin Center at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago.

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