In the fall of 1921 Oxford University established an honors degree course in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics, (PPE), to educate and train a post World War One generation of new leaders for roles across the social-political-economic-diplomatic-bureaucratic (civil service) spectrum.
A long list of distinguished British and American career success stories are graduates of Oxford’s PPE course. Most of these people we would all applaud irrespective of our political persuasion. Amongst the Americans are also distinguished Rhodes scholars. The latter have included in our lifetimes, solely for illustration, Dean Rusk, Bernard Rogers, Stansfield Turner, Joseph Nye, Lester Thurow, David Souter, James Woolsey, Bill Bradley, Richard Danzig, Wesley Clark, Bill Clinton, Dennis Blair, Strobe Talbot, Richard Haass, and to conclude this very tiny, totally random, selection, our local Olympian and NBA basketball hero in Marshall, Virginia, former US Congressman Tom McMillen, who won his scholarship from the University of Maryland to Oxford in 1974.
The point is well made. There are hundreds more that I cannot list here. Most of these outstanding people were totally self-made, coming from modest backgrounds, with no silver spoons in their mouths at birth, and working hard in the public school system. They are united by a core common characteristic – their extraordinary ability to innovate and lead.
The United States prides itself on its wonderful history of innovation, entrepreneurship, and leading the world in both technological advancements, and across the whole genre of human endeavor. The leaders of this long history of success, in our own time people like Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and Warren Buffet, spring to mind without the need for recollection, have not been politicians, with the exception of a very small minority.
In 2018 the public image of the United States Congress is at an all-time low. Today about six in ten Americans (62%) say that they have a very low (24%), or mostly unfavorable (38%), the opinion of Congress compared with about a third (34%) who give a favorable rating. Eccentric readers are invited to consider why our nation can consistently produce high-quality leaders in every walk of life irrespective of gender, religion, sexual orientation, racial, and ethnic origins?
We are, simply stated, a remarkable country, but many (the majority) consider our national political leadership flawed as low performers. We have to ask ourselves “Why”? However, we find on very detailed close inspection that many in the US House of Representatives and the US Senate are not just poorly educated and trained, but truly lacking in any real-world leadership achievements, whether in business, commerce, the scientific, engineering, and technical professions, and the higher end academic and medical domains. Many are, sadly, average modestly trained lawyers with few credentials other than raw political motivation and ambition.
Is this the reason why public opinion feels badly served? Mediocrity tends to produce mediocre results. Or is this too harsh and judgmental? The American people say not, in every responsible and professionally managed nonpartisan public opinion poll. That old culinary maxim that “The proof of the pudding is in the eating” is singularly accurate when applied to our two political bodies that seem endlessly flawed.
There are exceptions. Those in the House and Senate who have served in the Armed Forces seem to exhibit more innate ability and leadership, underpinned by thorough education and training, than many of their peers. The interdisciplinary links of philosophy, politics, and economics in a complex global economy, with multiple national security issues interwoven, are not for the uninitiated, or for the woefully poor performers.
What can we do in our small, yet influential community? First, we do need a new generation of political leaders who do meet Plato’s criteria in his “Republic” for smart, educated, experienced, and successful (in a worldly sense) to lead in Congress. If Plato can figure out how to run and populate with good leaders a successful state in 380 BC surely we can ensure that our ablest young men and women are selected and groomed after proving that they are worthy? Second, do we need to clean house of dead, ineffective wood?
Your author believes that civility died in Congress with the rise of Newt Gingrich to be Speaker of the House, signifying the death of responsible bi-partisan respect, good cheer, and gentlemanliness, while agreeing to disagree in the civilized and educated debate. Rhetoric and demagoguery became the order of the day under Gingrich, and things have not improved since his time, in fact, declined further into pitiful self-destructive bi-partisanship.We, both as individuals and collectively, totally irrespective of party affiliation, should consider influencing directly the selection of our politicians at every level, from town council to county supervisors, to school boards, to Virginia House of Delegates and Senate, and to the US Congress. We cannot survive as a healthy and effective body politic based on mediocrity sired by outmoded party loyalties.
This is not to naively believe in some form of universal wisdom that will unify our politicians. This is a mere pipedream. Rather let us create a new generation of politicians who are well educated, trained, already successful and proven leaders and not merely politically ambitious men and women who have acquired the art of political rhetoric, and from whatever party.
Amongst our young people is a new generation of future politicians who can make us proud and fulfill Plato’s ideals in the realities of the 21st century. Nothing is impossible for the great American Republic. This is not a time to be either faint hearted or be driven by ingrained party and familial loyalties of whatever persuasion. Positive change for the good of America is there, waiting to be achieved.
We can all contribute. Take one local example: Ms. Leslie Cockburn is running for the 5th Congressional District this November, a lady who meets all Plato’s criteria in abundance, and who has made a huge difference in her well-proven career. Perhaps many of our current political leaders should heed the words of Oliver Cromwell dismissing the Rump Parliament on April 20, 1653: “You have sat too long for any good you have been doing lately. Depart, I say, and let us have done with you. In the name of God, Go”. The November 2018 elections can be a seminal moment. In the words of a naval aphorism, to all Eccentric readers, “Make it So.”