A talented friend of mine recently asked me what I thought about an offer he received to take up a political career. The friend has brains and ambition, and achieved and enjoyed a stellar career. I advised he accept the invitation. I made sure to underscore the downside; from most points of view, it’s all downside. It would be a life much less well-rewarded, more strenuous, with the certainty of bitter opposition and the strong possibility of final disillusionment. But I still said it was the better choice.
I said that if politics, the most necessary of professions, doesn’t get such people in its ranks, its current raggedness will get worse, and the fabric will begin to rip and disintegrate. I was advising selfishly. I want to live in a world where the essential work of managing its conflicts and emergencies is overseen by elected men and women who are highly intelligent with a social morality at once liberal and firmly held. I believe they exist, and shouldn’t be discouraged by the low status of politics we’re all suffering through now.
The general consensus is that political parties are losing their talent pools because there are so many lucrative, attractive and even useful careers around for clever and energetic people. It’s worse than that: their internal struggles are at least as internecine as ever, but the tasks and dilemmas facing them are more complex and strenuous than ever before. Moreover, the press and public regard them with anything between indifference and contempt. There are only occasional flashes of admiration.
Yet political parties are the rocks on which democracies build political life. We entrust parties to establish and run programs to help our countries’ development. When we vote them into government, we further extend our trust that they will pass and enforce laws, safeguard the rules and procedures of the legislatures that give a mandate to these laws, use the power wisely to declare war or settle a peace, impose taxes, define crimes, supervise the intelligence services at home and abroad…and much else. When not in power, we trust them to be loyal to the state while determined to oppose those who run the show.
That’s a lot of trust to extend when most polls in most democratic countries show we don’t trust them much, or even at all. A December 2012 Gallup poll showed that members of the U.S. Congress were regarded somewhere in the range of used car salesmen.