John Gardner on Elected Officials
|December 9, 2002||Posted by Staff under Progress Report, The Progress Report|
John Gardner on Democracy
Constraints Against Elected Officials
Some people, deeply skeptical of what citizens can do, believe that election of good men and women to public office is the beginning and end of political wisdom. “If you want to change things,” they say, “elect men and women who will bring about the desired changes.”
The reality is considerably less simple. Often even “good” candidates begin long before election to accommodate themselves to the very forces in American life that they would have to oppose if they were to accomplish significant change. Sometimes they cannot even be nominated unless they put themselves under obligation to a corrupt political machine. Often they accept campaign gifts from powerful corporate, union, or professional groups whose interests they will later be required to weigh against the public interest. Too often, when they enter office they find themselves deeply compromised by those pre-election accommodations.
And even if they have been wise enough not to make such accommodations. they discover, upon being elected. that they are trapped in political and governmental machinery that cannot be made to work.
I think we would all agree that if we could, in any given election year, increase by 15 or 20 percent the number of good people in public offce, it would be a remarkable feat–a stunning feat. Yet, I am convinced that if we were to accomplish that stunning feat it would make very little difference. Very few of the things that are really wrong with this country would be altered.
Powerful as he may seem, a President’s options are limited — limited by the accommodations he made in order to get elected, limited by his desire to be re-elected (or to keep his party in power), limited by the structure and constraints of governmental institutions.
Even if Presidents were as powerful as some citizens think they are, there is no evidence that the American people will consistently–or even frequently–elect Presidents with the greatness and wisdom to initiate profound and far-reaching social changes. I have asked many experienced observers. “How often can we expect to have in the White House a man who has the intellect, character, charisma, stamina, and courage to provide truly inspired Presidential leadership?” The pessimists say once or twice in a century. The most optimistic say once in a quarter century. Clearly we cannot organize our society in such a way that we are dependent on inspired Presidential leadership, because most of the time it won’t be there.
We must build creative strength in other parts of the system. And in fact that’s the kind of system it was intended to be. It was never intended that we should seek a Big Daddy and lean on him. We shall save ourselves — or we won’t be saved.
It is immensely important that we elect a President of superior qualifications. But we cannot put sole reliance on him nor on any of our other elected officials to bring about the deep changes in our institutions that are essential. Without an active, concerned constituency they are helpless.
What’s your opinion about constraints on elected officials? What can we hope or expect from them? Speak up!