The Case Against Political Ambition

When you’re in the position of nearly 9 million New Yorkers, where your mayor and your governor hate each other, you wonder what it would take to bring them together. If you’re one of those New Yorkers, where your two top leaders are planning on presidential bids, you’re waiting for the rhetoric to start. Just days after the end of the 2018 general election, it did.

All of a sudden, in a city with a crumbling infrastructure, where public housing has a lead crisis, and the rent is still too damn high, we’re talking about jobs. Speaking to Brian Lehrer in mid-November, the Bernie Sanders-endorsed mayor who has told us he’s a progressive as many times as he’s told us he’s a Mets fan, he sounded like he was John Kasich stumping in upstate New York.

When you’re working at an office, you can’t go up to your boss or the people who sign your check, and tell them that you’re interviewing for other jobs. No matter who you are at a company, this kind of talk will drive stock prices, morale, and the future of your company down the drain.  It’s likely that you’d lose your job because of this.

So why is it legal for our elected officials to hold an office while they travel the country, absent from their job, trying to interview for another office? Why do we encourage those elected officials we like to slack off from their jobs, aim higher, and inject broad rhetoric into their platform?

I’d like to argue for why it should be illegal to run for another paid public office while you’re being paid to hold another.

From Resistance to Rhetoric

From Maxine Waters, to Cory Booker, to Bernie Sanders, we have made celebrities out of people who we brand as part of the #resistance. Their participation or their consent to this position is irrelevant. Enamel pins, viral posts, and think pieces are circulated regardless.

Their work and their positions are why we crown them with this title. However, the actual requirements for their resisting is much more limited.

When resisting an administration that flirts with fascism and authoritarianism, there is a long tradition of protest for these leaders to tap into.  Regardless of whether or not they have historically protested or put themselves into a position of arrest, it seems all the rage.

It was somehow vindicating to see New York City council members subjected to the violent arrest tactics that protestors fighting for basic civil liberties have experienced.  The fact that elected officials experienced this validates the struggle. However, there’s an element of rhetorical theater to their arrests.

They protest as if they’re not also the legislative keyholders. While we want to march arm in arm with our leaders, they show up when the workload is on someone else, never when it’s on their own shoulders. When they’re the one who is tasked with speaking a resounding “no” against corporate developers and donors, they don’t bring the rhetoric.

Should a local elected official move from running to represent 100,000 people to representing 10 million, the needs of those 100,000 will be neglected while the 9 million others are courted.  There’s something sickly undemocratic and privileged for us to allow people who are supposed to be solving problems at home to neglect us and seek work abroad, getting paid while problems inevitably mount.

The Appointed, The Unelected

As someone who has worked the street corner, hustling for my own political office, I know that people think “they’re all crooks”. I’ve also worked at polling places where people walk in unenthusiastic about voting, instead voting for a party line out of obligation.

How can we argue that we should trust the people who we elect to office knowing that so many of the people in power are appointed rather than elected? We’ve seen it when presidential appointees are lambasted by congressional committees.  We see it when someone asks “wait who controls the school board?” and then out comes someone who you’ve never heard of before. Worse, it could be someone you have heard of before who happens to be a disgraced friend of the elected.

When an elected official goes out of town to stump for their next big office, their staff and their appointed subordinates take their place. In the world of politics, these are people who have their own ambitions, agendas, and ways that they think they’ll become politically famous.

When these un-electeds start making decisions, voting by proxy, or releasing statements, we have little to no control. While we can get mad at the electeds, those appointed staff can be too easily scapegoated. They can be fired and forgotten about while the electeds are forgiven.

Incumbency is a Drinking Game

In most drinking games, the person who does worst at the game is the one who takes a drink. Losing is winning short-term is losing long-term.

The party who is most prepared or equipped to win is given the chance to set the balance for how likely the opposing player is to win. What starts off as a slight imbalance only gets exacerbated as the game is played.

This is the case when incumbents are allowed to run for higher office. They build a base around a community and with each perpetual win, that base widens. In a way, it feels only natural to extend that base.

The concept of free market thinking assumes that everyone who succeeds deserves the chance to continue that success. What does a world look like where they are instead responsible for bringing success to other people?

In a drinking game where the winner is supposed to drink, the game continues at an even playing level for much longer. The winning team can’t win forever, as they’ll soon be evenly matched with the losing team. The losing team will spoil their advantage after a couple of wins, rebalancing the game.

If we can reimagine politician as an egalitarian drinking game, we can see broader access to public office. This will drive more engagement via a political ruling class that’s committed to building a political community.

This approach takes some imagination to execute.  Currently, we’re so accustomed to cash and carry politics where we almost encourage our favorite figures to not do their job if we happen to agree with them. With this approach, we could stop elected officials from interviewing for a new job for years while they’re beholden to another.

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