Political Leadership: Service or Career?

The well-being of citizens and their economy are interdependent and a functioning democracy balances and sustains the natural confluence of both. Otherwise, democracy may weaken and even fail.

Today in America’s halls of power, the strengths of business and moneyed interests are far outstripping the interests of her citizens – and leadership hasn’t the courage to intervene.

Conservatives argue that the inverse is true, citing the size and cost of social safety net program components like social security, welfare, and Medicaid. This assumes that Americans are by nature unmotivated to work, the welfare Cadillac trope, whereas studies indicate that most of us value the dignity and esteem that productive and fairly compensated work imparts, and would prefer to support ourselves and our families than accept government charity.

The hegemony of economic interests over those of working and out-of-work Americans has been generous to those at the top, while our once substantial working class that drove a consumer economy is dwindling. Wealth accumulation now comes more from intermediated income derived from rents, interest and dividends than from earned income and value creation.

Organized business advocacy groups and industry associations are deeply embedded and invested in our legislative and executive halls of power, with Citizens United allotting a projected two plus billion dollars for the coming presidential, legislative, and gubernatorial campaigns. Information technology’s capacity to parse granular voter data now enables parties to gerrymander districts down to the household, while recent efforts to acquire and influence judgeships portends a deeper incursion into the judiciary branch as well.

Vermont is not immune. Recently, many of our lawmakers were influenced by the ability of the NRA to fill their offices and chambers with partisans; but we should remember that the success of any special-interest group depends on the compliance of those they seek to coerce.

The existential moment for a leader comes when, having heard and considered all sides, he or she must decide what’s right for their constituents and the economy. Democratic leadership rests in the expectation that leaders will make the right decision instead of one that furthers their political career and produces more campaign cash. We forget that governing is a service, not a career. Several Vermonters lost elections for making the right decision at the advent of Civil Unions.

We expect our leaders to make courageous decisions, balancing the interests of citizens and businesses. Fear and money invariably corrupt leadership decisions. A leader can dispel his or her fear, whereas it’s up to us to expel the corrupting influence of money from the decision-making process.

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