Book Review: “Politicians” By Bruce Chapman

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There may be one or two Americans left in the country who don’t know that we are currently living in an anti-Establishment, anti-professional, anti-politician era. Nationally we have voted someone into the Presidency whose primary claim to high office is that he has never held office. (In my own state, we have had a smaller version of the exact same phenomenon.) In virtually every Congressional and state-level campaign beyond the Presidential elections, we have candidates (including incumbents) engaged in an ever-escalating rhetorical battle to claim the low ground of experience. In Politicians: The Worst Kind of People to Run the Government, Except for all the Others, Bruce K. Chapman argues that this disdain for long-serving public servants has to stop.

Of course one might argue right off the bat that Chapman is no unbiased observer. Involved in politics very nearly all his life, he has served as a Seattle City Councilman, Washington’s Secretary of State, Director of the Census Bureau, and United States Ambassador. Which leads to my primary criticism of this book. Politicians argues that we should be more interested in having genuine statesmen lead us, rather than.. well, any of the alternatives. Chapman does this in most chapters in the book by using his own life story and experiences in government as springboards from which to dive into his broader arguments. And while Chapman is a competent writer, has good points to make about government and political society, and has lived an interesting life, the blending of biography and polemic (though “polemic” is probably too strong a word there) isn’t always as seamless as it could have been. At times this book feels like two different books shuffled together.

That said, Politicians is still a worthwhile and useful read. Chapman breaks his book into three sections. The first deals with “The Demoralization of Public Life” and chronicles the rise of American distaste for the establishment. What the Republicans have perfected with the nomination and election of Donald Trump began with the anger and discontent of the New Left in colleges and universities around the country in the late 60’s. Chapman traces the growth and spread of American dislike of professional politicians and the effect it has had on our institutions from then until now.

Perhaps the most damaging of these effects is the rise of what Chapman calls “The Middlemen.” As we come to dislike politicians more and more, we place limits and restraints on them. (In the case of Congress and state legislatures, they often place these limits on themselves in response to voter preferences.) The result of these limits is not a decline in the power and scope of government, it is instead the growth of power of the unelected players in government and the non-representative institutions outside of government. The result is an across-the-board decline in the overall health of the Republic. Politicians have less power, citizens have less respect for politicians, and non-representative/non-accountable entities control more and more of our government. That all of this is most usually the result of attempts at reform should suggest that “reform” is not the undiluted good many assume it to be when they hear the word.

In the second part of Politicians, Chapman outlines what makes a good politician and how a good politician can “make it” in American life. He also emphasizes the need to attract good people into politics in the first place. The third part of the book suggests ways we might move forward, including a handful of policy suggestions and cultural adjustments that we might make if we want to begin the arduous process of restoring the high calling of public service in American life.

Unfortunately, I don’t think our culture is going to hear the argument of Politicians. The Left, while they might technically agree with some of Chapman’s claims about restoring public service, will be turned off by some of his specific policy suggestions. For example, the call to revive political parties by gutting campaign finance laws (which of course bind parties, but not PACs and other non-accountable players) and using the polls as the primary tool for disciplining parties that get out of line simply won’t be heard—at least if the speeches at the 2016 DNC are an accurate reflection of what is believed on the Left. The Right, on the other hand, might agree with many of Chapman’s specific proposals, but it simply will not hear of the need for career politicians, expertise in processes, and the strengthening of institutional integrity. When such calls are made, what the Right imagines it hears is “government should be bigger.” The end result is that everyone is against politicians and the situation just gets worse.

So by all means read this book. Chapman is right and his arguments are good ones. But don’t expect to win friends and influence people with the arguments he makes. Barring a radical cultural change in the American attitude towards politicians, I’m afraid that the need for virtuous career public servants is increasingly going to be unmet.

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