Having observed government and politics for most of my adult life, I can be cynical about elected officials and those who want to join their ranks. They talk of “serving” the public, but the truth is they have power over us and seldom seek to diminish it. We forget that at our peril.
My bad attitude sometimes intensifies during campaign season, when candidates troop through seeking our editorial board’s endorsement. We ask them all the same questions and hear slight variations of the same answers. It’s a time-honored ritual that can seem far removed from the voters out there somewhere trying to decide how to invest their franchise.
But I’ve been finding the primary this year energizing. We’ve talked to a lot of candidates – both enthusiastic newcomers and experienced veterans – who get it. They understand the relationship between government and citizen in a free society and genuinely want to make the system work better for everyone.
Politics, Charles Krauthammer wrote in the introduction to his book “Things That Matter,” tends “not to be the most elevated of human enterprises,” but it may be the most necessary.
“The most considered and balanced statement of politics’ place in the hierarchy of human disciplines came, naturally, from an American,” he wrote. “‘I must study politics and war,’ wrote John Adams, ‘that my sons may have the liberty to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history and naval architecture, navigation, commerce and agriculture, in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry and porcelain.’
“Adams saw clearly that politics is the indispensable for things elegant and beautiful. First and above all else, you must secure life, liberty and the right to pursue your own happiness. That’s politics done right, hard-earned, often by war. And yet the glories yielded by such a successful politics lie outside itself. Its deepest purpose is to create the conditions for the cultivation of the finer things ...”
That service to a “deepest purpose” is also true, I think, for state and local politics, perhaps to a lesser degree but in one sense in an even more important way.
At their worst, civil servants can infuriate us with money-wasting boondoggles, frustrate us with petty rules and regulations, and baffle us with idiotic changes to laws that shouldn’t have been passed in the first place.
But at their best, they allow us to navigate modern life in safety and sanity. They pave the roads, build the schools, take away garbage, and protect us from thieves and fires. They create the communities in which we may thrive.