Pursuit’s founder, the late Dr. Tom Coburn, was steadfast in his view of public service as — first and foremost — a service. It is an idea going back to the American Founding. John Adams famously wrote to his son that “Public business […] must always be done by somebody. If wise men decline it, others will not; if honest men refuse it, others will not.”
At the root of public service is the idea that elected officials and those seeking elected office are publicly minded rather than self-interested. In other words, they should be concerned about issues the nation faces and driven by representing the diverse viewpoints and backgrounds of their constituents.They should govern responsibly and be grounded in personal principle, and they should refuse to act merely for their personal advancement and narrow interests. In turn, they would recognize the need to constantly enrich these deliberations by making way for new sets of diverse viewpoints from diverse backgrounds. Public service is the constant which undergirds all of these points.
As a young American, I recognize the importance of public officials who are reform-minded and demonstrate clear principles that guide their actions in public life even if those actions go largely unnoticed. In what I suspect is a shared sentiment with most of my peers given the challenges our generation faces, this type of elected official is in high demand.
Some unsung figures I have watched with interest over time include: Rep. Mike Gallagher (R-WI) for his thoughtfulness on how to make government work better, Rep. Stephanie Murphy (D-FL) for recognizing the generational effects of massive public debt, Sen. Mitt Romney (R-UT) for making entitlement reform and political decency personal missions of his, Sen. Chris Coons (D-DE) for his support for the virtues of free trade and American leadership in the world in spite of partisan headwinds, Sen. Pat Toomey (R-PA) for his opposition to autopilot government spending, and former House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) for his commitment to making poverty escapable instead of tolerable.
There is a great deal for Americans who share an appreciation for thoughtful elected officials to be heartened by. However, the current political climate provides plenty of evidence that the tenets of public service the Founders envisioned and Dr. Coburn championed are in danger of going adrift. Without being too fatalistic, it is hard for me to view the names mentioned above and exceptions like them as increasingly just that — exceptions to a performative rule.
The latter two examples serve as a good initial indicator. Sen. Toomey recently announced his retirement from public life after his term expires in 2022. While it is laudable that he grounded his decision in the “realization that he will have spent 18 of 24 years as a politician” and thus saw his own public service completed, there is a palpable sense that he was also becoming a lonely figure dedicated to reform in a Senate that is steadily more deferential to the electioneering of party leadership. So too with the fiscal and poverty fighting visions of Speaker Ryan, whose retirement was one of several brought on by a sense of being “bone tired of today’s political climate.”
None of this is to say that politicians should not have the personal humility to make room for new perspectives or courage to stand their ground in the face of adversity, but if burnout with the system is the reason many public officials are stepping back, it clears the way for a degrading quality of public officials that replace them.
This downward trend is easily observed. At least four candidates on the ballot this November are boosters of the QAnon conspiracy theory, and recently-elected members of Congress like Reps. Matt Gaetz (R-FL) and Rashida Tlaib (D-MI) are unabashed in their preference for performance-oriented self-service over reform-minded public service.
Sadly, lawmakers like Reps. Gallagher and Murphy do not get a lot of press attention for their forward-looking reforms of longer congressional work weeks and tackling the national debt, while Rep. Gaetz has, as one Roll Call profile noted, “built a national profile” by purely focusing on 2020 electoral politics. Rep. Tlaib may secure praise from small cadres of left-wing academics with press statements in the form of legislation like a newly introduced defund-the-police/reparations/universal basic income bill, but absent is any observable effort on her part to work with her colleagues toward achieving consensus on issues like criminal justice reform or poverty alleviation.
Every generation of Americans has faced major dilemmas that demanded public-spirited individuals with a true commitment to public service to rise to the challenge of crafting reforms for the crises at hand. Each time, individuals with a passion and desire to solve problems have stepped forward.
John Adams’s reminder to his son that public business must always be done by somebody is an excellent point of reflection for all of us relying on responsible individuals committed to public service. America in 2020 faces no shortage of problems that will have far-reaching and unforeseeable consequences for our futures, so let us seek out the true reformers and tune out the performative figures.