On April 1 the internet was abuzz over Anthony Weiner. The feisty New York Democrat known for his hilarious tirades had stolen the show the night before at the annual Congressional Correspondents’ Dinner. Weiner burst onto the national stage by imitating Rahm Emmanuel’s penchant for profanity, lampooning Michele Bachmann’s looniness, and even poking fun at his own unfortunate surname. While many members of the public were first introduced to Anthony Weiner that night, he was certainly no political novice. Weiner started working in politics right out of college and in 1991 was elected to the New York City Council at the age of 27. Weiner successfully sought the House of Representatives seat previously occupied by Democrat Charles Schumer in 1998. He was reelected six times, never receiving less than 59% of the vote. During his twelve years in the House he had developed himself into an effective and media-savvy communicator. After knocking it out of the park at the Correspondents’ Dinner, Weiner was well positioned to assume his dream job – Mayor of New York City. Less than three months later, he was gone.
Anthony Weiner officially resigned from the House of Representatives in the midst of a sexting scandal launched after he accidentally posted a link to a lewd photograph of himself on the Twitter account he used to communicate with constituents. Predictably, Republicans called for Weiner to resign the moment the scandal broke. Whereas it was no surprise that the GOP failed to rally to Weiner’s side, it was shocking to observe how quickly the Congressman lost the support of his own party. Within hours of Weiner’s mea culpa press conference, former Democratic National Committee Chairs Tim Keane and Ed Rendell said he had to go. Current Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz echoed a similar sentiment. Publicly these party spokespeople decried Weiner’s social media behaviour as unacceptable, but privately they lamented that the scandal was stepping on their messaging efforts. Former Clinton Press Secretary Dee Dee Myers penned an op-ed for Politico chastising Weiner for having “hijacked the agenda” as “the party was on a roll.” Democrats were worried that any momentum they had gained from their recent special election upset victory would be swallowed up in the black hole of political celebrity gossip.
Certainly the media swarm surrounding Weiner overshadowed Hochul’s triumph. But even without the scandal, maintaining the political momentum from one special election victory for another seventeen months would have been incredibly challenging if not impossible. To illustrate, President Obama recently enjoyed an eleven-point public approval ratings bump following the death of Osama bin Laden. One month later the bump was gone. If bringing to justice the murderer of 2,977 American citizens wasn’t enough to keep the country’s attention for longer than a month, how long did Democrats expect the buzz over an upstate New York Congressional seat to last?
Perhaps most damaging to Weiner was the vanishing support of his fellow New Yorkers. A June 6 SurveyUSA/WABC-TV poll conducted found that 46% of New Yorkers said he should resign while only 41% wanted him to remain in office. A common refrain from those demanding Weiner’s resignation was the need for him to take this opportunity and get a “real job,” a reflection on the Congressman’s resume lacking any private sector experience. The implication of this statement was that private sector work is far more socially acceptable than the public service to which Weiner had dedicated his career, and it demonstrates an unfortunate deterioration of the political profession in the eyes of American citizens. The public has cynically come to believe that anyone who devotes their professional lives to politics must obviously be corrupt, incompetent or both.
This disparagement is a relatively recent phenomenon. Throughout the mid-twentieth century the public largely supported its elected representatives. In 1958, 73% of the American people reported that they trusted the federal government to do what was right “most of the time” or “just about always.” 76% of the electorate that gave Lyndon Johnson his 1964 landslide said the same thing. At the height of American confidence in Washington, Barry Goldwater ran against LBJ on a platform of rolling back the federal government’s reach, and he was subsequently crushed at the polls. Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security were overwhelmingly popular programs deemed untouchable.
But a combination of corruption, overreach and anti-government messaging has whittled away that trust over the past 40 years. According to an April 2010 poll conducted by the Pew Research centre, only 22% of Americans say they trust the federal government “almost always or most of the time” – among the lowest measures in the half-century since pollsters first started asking the question. Over the same period the term “career politician” has been turned into an epithet. Candidates from both parties have worn a lack of political experience as a badge of honour ever since, most notably during the 2010 midterms. Kentucky Senator Rand Paul aired campaign television advertisements with the tag line: “I’m a physician, not a career politician.” Michigan Governor Rick Snyder refused to debate his Democratic opponent, stating he was not interested in the “typical career politician playbook.” And when asked why voters should choose her over the more experienced Jerry Brown to be California’s next Governor, former eBay CEO Meg Whitman responded: “Because I’m not a career politician.”
Politics is a trade just like woodworking, steel making or carpentry. It requires a mastery of skills in order to perform the job effectively. Most electricians learn their craft by completing a four-year apprenticeship program because they know no one in their right mind would hire an amateur to rewire their house. Yet Americans have no qualms about entrusting political neophytes with our taxes, drinking water and public safety. We even grant them the power to send our sons and daughters to fight in war. The incredible responsibility vested upon our elected officials requires qualified people to serve their country, and both political parties must call upon them to do so.
Luckily, there is a vast reservoir of talent from which to draw a new generation of public servants. The Millennial Generation – those born between 1982 and 2000 – seem to have been inoculated from the cynicism that has infected previous cohorts. Coming of age in the shadow of 9/11 and the wreckage of Hurricane Katrina, surveys show Millennials are the most civic-minded since the generation of the 1930s and 1940s. Michael Hais, co-author of Millennial Makeover: MySpace, YouTube, and the Future of American Politics says: “Other generations were reared to be more individualistic. This civic generation has a willingness to put aside some of their own personal advancement to improve society.” At around 95 million, the Millennial Generation is the largest in US history, but its full force has yet to be felt. As more and more Millennials reach maturity, the time is ripe for a 20-first century call to service. One hopes that not only will the Millennials’ injection of civic passion breathe new life into our moribund political institutions, but also that many will make politics a career and slowly win back the public trust.
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