My apologies for wordiness.
I was wittering about on Twitter yesterday, and somebody’s comment caught my eye, and then in the way of Twitter, it disappeared down my timeline, and I lost it. But the pith was: “it’s time just to get rid of the term “public service” because politicians are all about the money and feathering their own nests.
I certainly understand the cynicism, as it has been the prevailing sentiment about politics and, to no small degree, government employees, throughout my lifetime. I grew up in a family where working in government or politics meant serving your neighbors. Throughout the US, leaders in small towns do such public service every day with very little hope of lining their own pockets on part-time salaries. When I stepped into what became my adult world, that was so not the sentiment. “Why do you want a degree to get the a….government job?” sneered one MBA after another. Politics was crooked and lame, instead of the necessary, if often messy and difficult but potentially honorable work of sorting out collective futures for shared lives. It was the purview of losers who couldn’t hack it in the private sector, marked by lower salaries and “union protection” instead of the raw talent private sector firms thrived on according to its own mythologies. No matter what size it really is, the government is too “too big” (ever notice how nobody is ever asked what the right size of government is? It’s just always “too big” no matter what size it is.)
Donald Trump is, for me, the final, unfortunately logical, outcome of the folksy Reagen revolution where people decided that the world was simple, there was good and evil, and the simple facts are the private enterprise (both business and philanthropy) was good and government, especially the welfare state, was terrible. That government had only two real missions that boiled down to one: 1) ensuring social (read racial and class) order so that 2) the wheels of business could turn and make everybody (supposedly) richer. Democrats joined Republicans in supporting mass incarceration and one war after another, ensuring our own impoverishment through our lack of investment in our own young.
And so now we have government-by-grifters, whose fans love, rather than deplore, the naked exercise of state power by a petulant strongman they think will hate and punish all the same people they do. Gramsci, fascism, etc, and the rest of us befuddled by a man so entirely without any public ethics besides “Me first” that it has laid bare just how much of our executive leadership has been regulated by the honor and self-control of prior leaders, now utterly absent in the ones we have in men like Donald Trump and Mitch McConnell (who just got his Russian pork for helping get Russian mobster Oleg Deripaska out of sanctions; the emerging global world order is now a visible crime state, and while horray for workers in Kentucky, is this really what we are doing now? Really? )
If we ever get rid of our grifter-in-chief, whither the institutions he has so degraded? I’m seeing that question everywhere, and I don’t know what to do with it. Do we attempt to regulate the presidency so that we no longer rely on norms and expectations about the prudential use of power, or do we re-commit to judging our leaders based on precisely those virtues? And, in turn, do we re-commit to expecting it—and honoring it—in all our representatives, as well as in the people who work in our institutions day by day? Americans seem so utterly ungrateful to other people, from teachers to janitors in our public buildings, that I am not sure I can ever envision us doing right by them anymore.
I’m not fool enough to believe in a prelapsarian where government and politics were all shiny and truly democratic or representative. The US government has been hamstrung since the beginning by bargains struck to immiserate slaves and indigenous people for order and power for European settlers and subsequent generations of white people.
But I do very much worry about who steps into the power vacuum left once government work and politics becomes so hopelessly stigmatized as the purview of the rotten and hopelessly self-interested because it strikes me as a self-fulfilling prophecy. And we don’t want those people in charge.
I can also see the value of just getting rid of the pretense, if that is all it is, that people can behave virtuously in the exercise of power and, simple as that, put in so many limits and accountability checks that people who hold the reigns on state power don’t go to the bathroom without sunshine laws and effective oversight making sure it’s legit.
I don’t know anymore.