As 2022 draws to a close, The Fulcrum has invited leaders of democracy reform organizations to share their hopes and plans for the coming year. This is the first in the series.
Weichlein is the CEO of FMC: The Former Members of Congress Association.
In a 2022 survey by Zety, which offers career advice and an online resume builder, over 1,000 Americans ranked “politicians” as the least respected profession when given 20 job titles to choose from. I’m guessing politicians would have come in last even if there had been 30 or 40 choices. Politicians were ranked lower than reality TV stars, social media influencers and TV reporters. Moneywise went through a similar exercise in 2019, asking Americans to rank professions based on how much they respected them. At the very bottom of a list with almost 30 choices: members of Congress.
I cannot vouch for the scientific soundness of Zety’s poll, nor do I know how participants were selected or how questions were phrased, but there’s enough corollary evidence all over the internet to suggest Zety may be on to something: Americans don’t like, trust or respect their elected representatives as a whole. Yet every two years, those of us who vote reward a candidate of our choice with one of our most precious possessions: our vote. And we all apply some sort of benchmark or analysis as we decide which candidate to vote for as our standard-bearer in Congress.
Whatever litmus test we all individually applied, the 2022 election is over and a new Congress will be sworn in on Jan. 3, 2023. The voter’s job now is to hold our elected representatives accountable over the next two years as we gear up for the 2024 election cycle. The candidate you selected is your chosen standard-bearer, and your responsibility as an engaged and educated voter is measuring their performance leading up to the next election. If they are your standard-bearer, then what are your standards?
Digging a little deeper into the Zety survey, there are clearly common themes we as a society value: integrity and strength of character, for example. Might the top five most respected professions give us some indication of what we wish we would see in our representatives, regardless of party and no matter whether a state legislator, a candidate for the White House or a member of Congress? Let’s take a look.
One of the essential characteristics that make for a successful teacher (No. 5 on the list) is preparation. Members of Congress wear many different hats on any given day, but it is through their committee work that they can have the biggest impact for the good of the country. However, committees can only be productive if the committee members feel an obligation to study and understand the subject matter, make attending their committee meetings a priority, and use hearings and expert testimony to examine a challenging question, rather than wasting everyone’s time scoring cheap shots to increase their Twitter following.
Firefighters (No.4 on the list) are asked to do what most of us could never do: run into the fire rather than away from it. When I think of the tragedy of 9/11, I also think of the extraordinary courage displayed by New York’s first responders as they raced up the stairs of the crumbling towers of the World Trade Center. Courage for politicians comes in many shapes, but at the core is the willingness to put the greater good above self-interest. Of course, being reelected is the paramount survival skill of any elected official, but there are times in every member’s professional life when they are asked to follow their conscience and make a choice that may cost them personally. That is the type of “Profile in Courage” that President John F. Kennedy highlighted in his 1956 book.
Successful farmers (No. 3 on the list) need to work as part of a team in order to survive in one of the most challenging and demanding industries. Teamwork makes or breaks farm life, because there is simply too much to do for any single individual and too many required skills for just one person to master. As one of 435 House members or one of 100 Senators, those legislators who actually want to move policy forward need to build relationships, earn the respect of colleagues, and accept that they are part of a greater whole rather than the soloist garnering all the attention.
Good scientists (No. 2 on the list) observe and analyze data and are open-minded. They let the evidence lead them to a solution rather than the other way around. Our elected representatives are our voice when it comes to finding solutions that will benefit our society as a whole. When political bias eliminates even the possibility of working together, then we are succumbing to the tyranny of the majority that so concerned our Founding Fathers. Our representative democracy is built on conflict and gridlock, so that a vigorous clash of ideas leads to common ground and compromise, but this is possible only if voters reward healthy partisanship over hyper partisanship.
There are certainly many important characteristics when it comes to your physician (No. 1 on the list), but how many outrank trustworthiness? You expect your doctor to give you straight answers and truthful information on which you can base life-altering and life-saving decisions. According to a recent study by the Pew Research Center, only two in 10 Americans say they trust the government in Washington and our political leaders, whereas the first time Pew conducted the same study, in 1958, that number was more than seven in 10. While the number ebbed and flowed over the decades, since 2007 the share of the public saying they can trust the government always or most of the time has not surpassed 30 percent. We have created an environment where facts are called into question based solely on the messenger’s perceived political leanings. If the truth doesn’t align with our politics, then by default it cannot be true. What we should reward and expect instead is for elected officials to say what they mean and mean what they say.
I know that the solutions to our country’s many challenges cannot be reduced to bumper stickers. I also know that there are nuances and consequences that I cannot grasp, and I need to entrust those who represent us to make decisions and cast votes that require more thought than a tweet. I place greater value on character than 100 percent adherence to any political ideology. These are the standards to which I will hold all members of the 118th Congress, regardless of party or whether I voted for them.
Are they prepared? Do they have the political courage it takes to do the right thing, even when it is unpopular with their party’s base? Do they work together with their colleagues across the aisle and across the Capitol to benefit their districts and the American people? Are they open-minded and willing to incorporate new information into their decision-making process? Can I trust them? As you evaluate your representative or senator as your standard bearer, what are your standards?