"I just can't get my head around this..."
Recently, someone on a forum I frequent asked: “How is it that 330 plus million Americans couldn’t find better candidates for the American presidency? “It beggars belief. I just can’t get my head around this.”
Several answers had been posted before I started writing, but while I agreed with a lot of what was said, most of the answers seemed to me to miss the underpinning problem. So I took a somewhat different tack in my own response.
Let me hasten to add, I took a different tack not because I was “right” and they were “wrong,” but rather out of the belief there was a tad bit more to be said. My own perspective comes from my service as a Marine officer beginning at the tail end of the Vietnam war and running through Operation Restore Hope in Somalia. My own thoughts on the question with which this post opened follow.
In the wake of My Lai and the concommitant allegations of soldiers & Marines committing wholesale atrocities, the American military writ large became a despised institution and those who served in it (often as a way out of grinding poverty) were despised along with it. Irrespective of the quality of their own service, I should add.
As anyone who has ever been in the position of being despised knows, eventually the characterizations and the underpinning attitudes about any group become part of the problem, rather than a path to remedy. Independent of whether the reputation is deserved, the expectation growing out of that reputation often becomes the bar. “If I’m going to be despised anyway,” (the thinking goes), “I might as well embrace it.” Consciously or unconsciously, who among hasn’t been guilty at some point of living down to people’s expectations of us (or worse)? The American military for several years post Vietnam was despised, underfunded & in too many unfortunate individual cases, despicable.
I was there for the turn-around. In the Corps, that turnaround was ushered in by a gentleman affectionately nicknamed “The Smiling Cobra.” General Wilson instituted a comprehensive (and aggressive) expeditious discharge program, shortening the service of nearly 25,000 undesirables while slowly raising both the standards of recruiting for new accessions and standards of performance for all ranks, but especially at the junior officer and NCO levels. And not that it matters, but General Wilson was the first general officer I ever met to go straight into my personal pantheon of heroes right from the jump.
He predicted (correctly) that as these men and women were promoted, they would take those higher standards with them and improve on them. It took a few years, but the troublemakers gone, the Corps (and the other services, from my experiences in working with them during the 80s and 90s) reclaimed their honor and continue to serve with distinction, even when we misuse them, as we are inclined to do.
The Lesson from a true leader.
The moral of this story? “What we permit, we encourage.” Applying this same principle to elected officials, can we not see the same dynamic in action? I see some hope in the in the first-time idealistic representatives coming into office in 2018, still untainted by the money swamp that Washington (and politics more broadly) have become. And there are still some ethical older hands as well, serving in government at all levels. So while we need to cull the herd, we also need to avoid culling good men and women who serve with the best and broadest interests of both our nation and districts and states in mind.
But more to the point, we must recognize that we are responsible for letting it get this bad, largely as a matter of increasingly malign neglect. Are there matters of extenuation in this? Sure! For starters, making our way in this world has (for the average citizen in America) become increasingly more difficult as the pace of life has ratcheted up and wholesale change has effectively rendered the old way of doing things largely ineffective. MAGA owes much of it’s appeal to the frustrations and feelings of alienation that have accompanied runaway change. Change (and adapting to it) has made some of us more inwardly- focused on the pragmatic business of making ends meet, rather than civic engagement.
That said, if our politicians must spend half their time fundraising even between elections rather than legislating, it’s a problem. Ans we as citizens must be agents of change and remove the conditions that have prioritized fund-raising over legislation. Publicly funded elections with spending caps, perhaps? We cannot continue to allow untold, untraceable money to flow into PACs with anodyne names pushing questionable agendas. Nor can we continue to allow lobbyists to draft legislation for our duly elected representatives.
Nor can we continue to allow self-serving politicians to draw their own districts after a census, simply because they’re in power. Back in the day when we taught Civics and Government in high school, we knew better. Districts should be just that…districts drawn in ways that make geographical sense and to whom elected representatives must be attentive.
Under the foregoing conditions inadequately summarized above, many of our politicians have become despicable, because we have allowed it. Hence they feel empowered to live down to our worst expectations. But we and in the end only we, can change that. We do so by whom we elect to send to represent us and the policies we oblige them under pressure to support. It will take a while, but we can change their behavior.
And if we do so, our elected representatives will be obliged to live up to our expectations of stewardship of the public trust, rather than down to our level of tolerance. Just as the men and women who continued to serve in the Corps have in the 80’s and beyond. I mention the Corps here, not because they’re the only ones who clamped down on expectations. All services have. But as a retired Marine officer, I’m most familiar with the Marine Corp’s example.
Does this require effort and vigilance on our part? It does and not from just a few of us. And not to put too fine a point on it, but this isn’t about the Inspectors General in the various departments of government. It is about us, and our actions as citizens. It demands active, consistetn civic engagement in the process of governance & a willingness to do what is necessary to fix the problem(s). Note the plural.
We must go into this effort realizing it will demand time, consistency & unwavering pursuit of a sustainable system of governance, rather than an immediate fix. We must be vigilant & more importantly, consistent. We must get money out of politics as the sole litmus test of viability. This means ending Citizens United. It also means and final end to the whole can of worms we call lobbying. This is the only reliable path to legislators’ attention to the unfiltered will of the people. Absent this, our will is certain to be drowned in a sea of Benjamins.
Attentive readers have already noticed that this outline of a possible solution doesn’t start with the politicians. It starts with us. Until we are agents of solution, we remain part of the problem. Just one broken-down, baggy-eyed old Marine officer’s opinion.
D.B. Sayers is the author of West of Tomorrow, an intelligent corporate romance with a deeper message and Best-Case Scenario, the first act in the journey of Nyra Westensee from a young woman with more questions than answers to a mature, thoughtful adult of promise and purpose.
His most recent work, Tier Zero, Vol I of the Knolan Cycle is the first volume in a science fiction tale of first contact between Earth and Knolan Concordant. The Year of Maybe, Act II of Nyra’s Journey and Eryinath-5 Vol II of the Knolan Cycle are both due out in 2021.