Politicians need to care more about the country and less about themselves

Earlier this week, Lance Duston wrote on his BDN blog about the need for better-qualified public officials. He argued that voters need to get rid of their fixation on candidates’ regular-guy appeal and instead support those who have government experience and relevant education.

I agree with Lance on his first point, but I think he misses the mark on his second. An elected official should have advisers and staffers with loads of government experience and education, and they should stock their administrations with highly qualified individuals. However, the elected officials themselves do not necessarily need those qualifications. There are good reasons to not exclusively elect people who have made their careers in public policy. Our representatives serve as an interface between the people and the government, and for the government to be responsive to the needs of different communities, we need people in office with a diversity of backgrounds. A public policy education or experience in government should not be disparaged by voters, but it also should not be a prerequisite to hold office.

Nevertheless, we should not be looking to elect candidates who seem like “normal” people, and we certainly should not expect them to act like normal people once in office. What we need are public servants. We need individuals who have unambiguous motivations for running for office and who will set aside their own self-interests once elected. Our best politicians demonstrate such integrity regardless of their pedigree and regardless of how much you might want to get a beer with them. Our worst lack it entirely despite their prestigious degree or common-man credentials. Holding elected office is unique in how crucial this is compared to other lines of work, and not everyone can or should do it.

There are two main types of problems that arise from having elected officials who let regular self-interest trump their duty to the communities they serve. The first is the prioritization of one’s personal finances over the best interests of one’s constituents, i.e. financial corruption. The most egregious example of this is plain-old vote-buying, and other more modern crimes such as insider trading are nearly as bad. However, there are more common and perfectly legal ways public officials—both elected and appointed—betray the public interest for their own finances. When officials cash in on their experience by going to work for an industry that benefited from their actions, it is hard to know whether they were acting in the public’s interest while in office or using their position to enrich their future selves. This is a good example of why we don’t want someone acting (or trying to act) like a normal person while holding office. Normal people like money and will do what they can to get more of it. But normal people don’t face the choice of turning down a lucrative job offer—sometimes in the millions for high-level federal officials—in order to preserve an abstract public faith in the integrity of their past decisions. That requires someone with a strong adherence to the value of public service.

The second category is the prioritization of one’s personal power over the best interests of one’s constituents. This is particularly slippery since we live in a representative democracy, so the power of an individual representative can be said to better serve their constituency. But there is no question that some behavior on the part of politicians serves only their self-aggrandizement, and rarely does that lead to better outcomes for their constituents. The state of partisan politics in general speaks to how prevalent this issue is, but we also have two good examples from the past month. First, there was the state government shutdown, which accomplished little for the people of Maine but a lot for those who enjoy doing things that make them feel powerful. What better way to remind yourself how important you are than to shut down an entire government for no major gain, even if only for a couple days? Second, at the national level, the effort to pass healthcare legislation has been tightly controlled by Republican leadership to the detriment of not only every Democrat but also many Republicans, particularly in the Senate, where the bill was drafted in secret then rushed to a vote. While we see an endless stream of headlines about the dramatic deaths and resurrections of the effort, we have little idea what is even being voted on. It seems many members of Congress don’t either. If elected officials were trying to pursue a fair legislative process that best served the interests of the public, this is not what they would be doing. If, however, they were trying to check a box on a campaign promise and embarrass their rivals (in both parties) so that they are better positioned to run for reelection and keep their leadership spot, then they might be on track.

Much of the trading of public best interest for power happens around campaigning. It happens in the pursuit of special interest support as well as in legislative power jockeying. It takes a lot of money to run for office, and most of that money does not come from constituents but from parties, PACs, and wealthy businesses and individuals. The lines are fuzzy—do donors give money to representatives because they hope they will vote for their issues, or do representatives vote for donors’ issues because they give them money?—but our politicians have to see them clearly. Our campaign finance laws are unlikely to improve anytime soon, so as voters, there are important questions we need to ask ourselves about a candidate before voting for them. Do we trust that they would act against the interests of a campaign donor if it was the right thing to do? Do we trust that they would hold their ground on an issue even if a major donor threatened to drop their support for them? A similar standard should apply to actions that are not popular with voters but the elected official, trusting that he or she has better information, supports and argues for. That honesty is required for a democracy to function properly, but many people would not be able to uphold those values in practice. It’s hard to be threatened with the loss of one’s power—potentially one’s whole career—and stay the course.

Judging a candidate’s character is a key part of choosing who to vote for. Stances on policy issues are important of course, but an elected official has to do a lot more than vote yes or no on a handful of big-ticket items. For all that time negotiating with other lawmakers, advocating to government agencies, and making decisions on issues that don’t get much publicity, it will be their character setting their path, not their campaign platform. When evaluating the character of a candidate, voters should not focus solely on their government expertise or relatability. We should look for evidence that they will uphold the values of public service.


This is my last post on Maine Meets World for the foreseeable future. I’m very grateful to the Bangor Daily News for providing this platform to share my thoughts. My posts since the beginning of the new year have been off-theme, but for articles on how global issues have affected Maine’s paper industry, National Guard members, and other topics, please check out the archives.


Phoenix McLaughlin

About Phoenix McLaughlin

Phoenix McLaughlin works at the National Endowment for Democracy helping to foster political development in Asia. Phoenix lives in Washington, D.C. now, but was born and raised in Norway, Maine. In between, he has studied and/or worked in Colorado, Nepal, India, France, Ethiopia, and Augusta. All opinions expressed on this blog are solely his own and do not represent his current or former employers.