Dear Donald –
You are not our savior. You are not special. You are not the Last Great Hope. I say this because, well, to be honest, you aren’t any of those things. But I also say it because, since your hire, there has been a particularly dangerous sentiment making the rounds among a significant subset of the American public. There is a rumor that, since you are wealthy, we should be somehow thankful that you have lowered yourself to the level of public service. Indeed, the thought goes, we are truly not worthy of you. This is ridiculous. It sells us short as the American public and it leads to both a savior complex on your part and a charity complex on ours. Let me explain.
First, a short summary of the argument. You are wealthy. That much cannot be contested (largely because you have ensured that we don’t have enough information to do so). Since you are wealthy, you supposedly do not need anything from the rest of us and could retreat to your golden penthouse and live out your days. Instead, you chose to travel across the country to fight for the needs of the people. We are, therefore, lucky to have you and should be thankful.
It is true that, to a certain extent, you didn’t need to run for public office (issues of ego aside). But then again, no one actually needs to run for public office. By and large, no one enters public service out of necessity. Most politicians can, and did, support themselves and their families outside of public office. No one needs to run for public office. Most of them do it because they want to serve. Why, then, should you be considered differently? What makes you special?
Well, the thought goes, we should be particularly thankful because you are exceptionally wealthy. The prosperity gospel runs deep in this country, but I have not known a scenario in which the size of your bank account or trust fund makes your commitment to service more or less genuine. Your commitment to serve should arise from a place deep inside of you, an abiding love and care for your fellow man. It doesn’t get distributed at the local ATM.
Many people argue that we should be thankful because you’ve given up your once lavish lifestyle to serve the American public, but we both know that’s not true, don’t we? Almost every single night you were campaigning for your current job, you went home in a private jet to sleep in a gilded apartment in Manhattan, while those attending your rallies went home on dirt roads in old pickups to houses that were modest when they were built fifty years ago and are now falling apart. You haven’t given up any lifestyle, other than spending more time on your private jet than you otherwise would have done.
In any event, the real problem with this line of thinking – that you particularly have made a huge sacrifice on behalf of this country – is that it creates a dangerous mindset for democracy. In the first instance, it makes the American people sell themselves short. This sentiment comes from some deep-seated anxiety about whether we, as the American people, and our democratic system of government, are good enough or worthy of particular individuals. That, somehow, public service is beneath the dignity of certain people. When we allow this belief to creep into our national consciousness, we resign ourselves to lesser candidates or politicians. We begin to see the pursuit of public office as something dirty and beneath the dignity of so-called “great men” (or women). As a result, we settle for the B team to run things, and we blame the results on the poor quality of leadership that we ourselves voted in. We refuse to admit that we deserve better, and fail to demand better of our public servants.
It also feeds into the notion that, somehow, those who are successful outside of the government sector will, by default, be successful inside the government sector. After all, if we view our public servants as the JV Team, then anyone else must be better. That is not the case. People who are good at governing are not always good at private industry, and people successful in private industry are rarely successful in government. Government and private industry have distinctly different means and ends to their work. Understanding how the levers of government work to achieve successful outcomes is much different than understanding how to make a profit for your shareholders. Some skills may transfer, but many do not. Private industry does not, on its face, require more skills, smarter workers, or better judgment than government, but when we start to believe that private industry is better than the public sector, we reduce the likelihood that those folks who would be successful in the public sector will actually volunteer, hurting all of us.
This narrative is also corrosive because it perpetuates the thought that we should be, somehow, more thankful to the private sector success who moves over. While, on its face, I believe we should be thankful for all of those who commit their lives to public service, this sentiment is particularly dangerous because it also comes with a tinge of fear that you might leave. If you are so much better than your current position, we should be careful not to upset you, lest you leave us in the lurch. This, in turn, reduces our willingness to hold leaders accountable for their actions. After all, he could leave, so let’s not bother him too much. This approach gives the leader free reign over the machinations of government and, if he is also imbued with particular ill will or self-interest, the leader can then set about reshaping public policy to their personal benefit or the benefit of their benefactors in private industry, shortchanging the American people. Regardless of who is in charge, we must always hold them accountable, particularly when there is the possibility of self-dealing.
The response to this sentiment also corrupts the serving official. By operating in a position in which the public does not hold you accountable and for which they think you are overqualified, the leader begins to internalize that he or she is also better than this position and is, in some way, a savior of the people. If not for you, what subpar candidate would they have? As a result, the leader begins to believe that he has, or should have, wider latitude than others would in that same position.
This savior complex even goes to the basic issue of pay. I have seen several of your new hires say that they will only take a salary of $1 while they are in office. While I recognize that the individuals you are hiring are independently wealthy in most cases, the salary that is taken is not about enriching public servants. It is part of a compact. It is a recognition that, at the end of the day, you, or anyone in your service, ultimately is an employee of the American people, and is therefore accountable to them. When Jared or Betsy says that they will only take a $1 salary, they are furthering the narrative that they are somehow better than public service. In so doing, they reduce the amount of accountability that the public feels they can rightly demand. After all, how much can you ask of someone who’s only getting paid $1 per year? The salary is a symbol of the commitment and relationship between the American people and their employees. Wealthy individuals that you can hire are free to donate their entire salaries to charities, if they so choose, but by not taking them altogether, they further the notion that government is beneath their stature.
And that is where our democratic institutions truly fall apart. When we do not have enough faith in our institutions to demand excellence and do not hold leaders accountable, particularly as they themselves feel they should be held less accountable, we lose our way. At the end of the day, we all work for the American people, and they should demand excellence from all of us. You’re not some savior come to rescue the American people from the quagmire of ineffective government servants. You, like all of us, must be held to the highest standards of conduct every day, because that is what the American people deserve, even if they themselves may not always believe it.