Corrosive Careerism

Author: Gary Hart

Even a cursory study of early American history reveals at least two widespread convictions among the Founders.  One was the dread of “factions”, what today are known as political parties.  The other was that service in public office should not become a profession.

Of course, a third conviction was the separation of powers and a system of checks and balances among the three branches of government.

It was not long before “factions”, i.e., political parties, emerged taking shape as Federalists and Republicans, with the division largely over the degree of power to be given to the national government.

It is now pretty well conceded that President Jefferson cut across his own convictions about national and concentrated powers to make the Louisiana Purchase.

Centuries later, we are now experiencing what happens when a president exercises arbitrary power backed by an improbable “base” made up of a faction of his Republican Party.  Members of Congress of his own Party rubber stamp his actions with greater or lesser degrees of conviction and do so in many cases silently, that is without explanation or justification.

The Founders would have seen their most dire warnings come true.

How could this happen?  Careerism.

Three decades ago, conservatives rallied around a cause called “term limits.”  Twelve and out.  Two Senate terms and six House terms.  Then go home.  That cause disappeared under two realities: even those who claimed not to like their government found it more appealing than going back to the farm, and even those who stepped out of office or were defeated stayed on in Washington to form the revolving door—lucrative lobbying careers.

Colorado was a hotbed of term limit fever, at least until the limit was reached.  Then, shamelessly, its most ardent supporters proclaimed that they were needed in Washington to push back against “big government” Democrats.  Besides, the perquisites of office were better than civilian life, they confessed in whispers to each other.

So now we have a ruthless, out of control President and acquiescent members of his Party who fear his “base” and believe holding onto office is more important than protecting the country.  All because of cowardice and careerism.

And now corrosive careerism is aided and abetted by insidious gerrymandering, a red nation and a blue nation.  You can spend the rest of your life in office in red States and districts, so long as you toe the line, that is support the increasingly autocratic President silently and unquestioningly.

Democrats among us must be willing to concede that careerism also exists in the blue nation.  But there is a broader base in the Democratic nation with a wider range of ideological belief and more open debate about the future of the Party and nation than in red America.  And there is much greater willingness to question leadership and orthodoxy than in confused conservatism.

What makes conservative careerism and a Trumpian dictatorship possible is a willingness to suspend traditional orthodoxy to serve a loony leader.  Now, deficits don’t matter.  Now, we throw principles to the wind to court dictators.  Now, the Party of conservation wants to privatize the public patrimony.  Now, we throw valuable allies to the wolves.  Now, we start trade wars.  Now, we abandon valuable alliances necessary for our security.

What is next?

We are on the cusp of a highly divisive struggle in our country, superseded only by the awful Civil War and few other occasions.  A President with no allegiance to the rule of law or the Constitutional balance of power has thrown down the gauntlet, defied Congress, and ordered his administration not to cooperate with lawful searches for information on a wide variety of fronts.  Meanwhile, his consigliare in the Senate rushes to stack the judiciary with friendly judges.

To the impeachment count of seeking political help from two foreign nation, specifically prohibited by the Constitution, he now adds the second count of blatant obstruction of justice.

Pray for the triumph of truth and justice.


12 Responses to “Corrosive Careerism”

  1. Michael Says:

    Hypocrisy aside, term limits – except on the presidency – were never a very good idea. Becoming an effective legislator is something that needs to be learned and that takes time. In no other area of human endeavor would people be willing to sacrifice experience for the sake of a cheap soundbite. I see term limits as many saw the idea of a balanced budget amendment back in the 80s: a lazy remedy that absolves people – citizens and elected officials – of doing the hard work required in a democracy. But to careerism: it is certainly nothing new. In times of national peril, it again comes down to making the choice of absolving oneself of all responsibility or making the hard choices a democracy requires in order for it to survive. In such critical inflection points in the past, enough of our leaders have, at least eventually, done the right thing at the right time. In 2018, a large majority of the people did the hard work democracy required of them and gave the House of Representatives to the Democrats. It now seems certain that the impeachment of the president will follow – albeit along party lines. What the Senate will do remains to be seen. I don’t expect Mitch McConnell to act in good faith and provide the time necessary for a trial in which all the evidence against Trump can be fairly presented. Nor do I expect twenty Republicans to put country over their careers and vote for Trump’s removal – unless failing to do so endangers their careers. But hopefully that enough of them will be courageous and do the right thing. If enough of them do, we might be able to find some level of optimism about a future after Trump.

  2. Neil McCarthy Says:

    Your last sentence — “Vinceremo” — and your penultimate one — Pray for the triumph of truth and justice — reminded me of what the Jesuits (paradoxiccally but wisely) advised in high school: W to pray as if everything depended upon God but act as if everything depended on us.

  3. Neil McCarthy Says:

    Correction — We should pray . . .

  4. Elizabeth Miller Says:

    I think one good way to mitigate careerism is to highlight courageous Americans of great integrity and love of country who sacrifice their careers to stand up for all that is good and decent.

    Like Marie Yanikovich (sic) who today testified at the risk of all she has worked for to protect her country.

  5. Jack DuVall Says:

    During the 20th century, Theodore Roosevelt, a Republican president, instituted regulatory reforms and antitrust laws, and another reforming president, Franklin Roosevelt, pulled the nation out of an economic depression and helped lead the world in winning a war with authoritarian regimes in Berlin and Tokyo.

    Then history took an ideological turn: conservatives gained the upper hand in the Republican Party, as southern states turned their backs on the cause of equal rights for African-Americans. Although two Democratic presidents – Kennedy and Johnson — strengthened civil rights and led the nation into sweeping new public services, two subsequent Republican presidents – Reagan and Trump — helped reinforce the primacy of corporate power and reduce support for the social needs of many others.

    Are we now on the brink of what Gary Hart rightly describes as “Trumpian dictatorship”? There is ample evidence that the incumbent uses false narratives to justify American relationships with authoritarian rulers abroad and to decimate federal support for women’s rights, environmental safeguards, and a host of other services that had strengthened the underlying fairness and well-being of our nation. Quo vadis, the American dream?

  6. Stephen D. Pillow Says:


    You stated, “Hypocrisy aside, term limits – except on the presidency – were never a very good idea. Becoming an effective legislator is something that needs to be learned and that takes time.” Firstly, rarely, if ever, does a member of Congress come that that august body a “virgin” politician. They have worked their way up the “ranks” through local and/or state level elected position in which “learned” most, if not all, of the necessary skills to being an elected legislator. Secondly, if an elected official cannot learn the necessary skills within the first 3 months of taking their oath of office, then they shouldn’t be there in the first place.

    I would, however, suggest that House of Representative elected members serve two terms of four years , instead of two year terms. Senate elected members should like wise serve two terms, but of six years each.

    At what point does it become unacceptable for a person serving in an elected office to continue to gain power and influence that is seemingly unchecked by election. With the ability of the 1% and Big Business to buy elected officials through limitless “campaign contributions” once elected, they serve forever. The current Majority Leader of the Senate was first elected to the Senate in the 1980’s, which is approaching 30+ years holding that position. He now controls all legislation passing through the Senate in his own hands. Witness President Obama’s nominee for the Supreme Court of the United States, which he personally did not allow to even come to the floor of the Senate for a vote. We might not have the full benefit of a particular elected official by limiting his/her term in office, but we will also limit the authoritarian misrule of a tyrant. Those who have served their allotted terms in office can still influence the direction of our government by speaking and writing about the issues of the day, as our moderator does with this excellent medium.

  7. Michael Says:

    Stephen D. Pillow,
    It is not that unusual for members of congress to come to that office with no prior experience as an elected official. 2018 was a year in which many new people ran for office for the first time, and a lot of them landed in congress. In any case, in my opinion, the art of legislating also requires developing relationships; legislators need to know who they are dealing with on a personal level. I might be wrong about all this; maybe Senator Hart, who went to the Senate with no prior legislative experience, could weigh in. In any case, there are no elected officials “unchecked” by elections. Even the most powerful politicians can be booted out of office if the electorate is engaged and does what life in a democracy requires of them. If McConnell, who has an 18% approval rating in Kentucky, is reelected, that’s on the voters. If we start creating new rules to circumvent people’s laziness or cynicism, we might as well just flush the whole thing and let ourselves be governed by some Facebook algorithm.

  8. Stephen D. Pillow Says:

    I understand and agree with your reticence at putting even more laws or restriction on the Constitution, which is what it would take to put term limits on members of Congress. However, as our Moderator points out, “service in public office should not become a profession.” There are far too many people to name who have made a career of serving in Congress, most of which didn’t have that distinguishing one. My best example is that of the late Senator South Carolina, who first served in Congress in the very early 1940’s and never went home until his death at the age of 93 in the mid 2000’s. His career could be considered controversial, but not particularly distinguished considering his unwavering stance on civil/equal rights. He would fit right in with the current regime in the white house. If 20 years service in Congress, eight in the House and twelve in the Senate, is not sufficient, considering all of the lifetime perks, which in and of itself is another matter that needs addressing, to satisfy even the largest ego, then that person probably should not be elected to office in the first place.

    As a parting thought, how a particular state’s of district’s electorate votes, is not always what is best for them and especially for the nation as a whole. Some segments of the electorate are overly susceptible to the snake oil of certain politicians, such as you mentioned of McConnell, far too many members of Congress and most state legislatures of both parties, and I might add the current occupant of the white house.

    However, and I realize how I started the previous paragraph, I doubt that any Congress will pass a Constitutional Amendment limiting their terms in elected office, even if the Amendment contained a “grandfather’ provision exempting any current member. Added to that I doubt that the requisite number of state legislatures (38 currently) would ratify such and limit their members own chance at living a life off of the public tit forever. The other option is to get that same number of legislatures to vote to hold a “Constitutional Convention” to accomplish the needed change to the Constitution. This option is fraught with such horrors that I shudder to even consider it.

  9. Gary Hart Says:

    I accept Michael’s invitation to respond to Stephen’s observation about, as he terms it “virgin” elected officials. I was that rare exception, but learned the process relatively quickly. I rather surprised myself at how quickly I became comfortable with the legislative procedures and protocols. It was the triumph of hubris over “working one;s way up the ladder.” The danger for some, and I saw this first hand, is the presumptuous politician who parachutes in at the top and tries to take over from more seasoned and wise officials. On the other hand, I retired voluntarily after two terms, itself now a rare thing. The key is less legislative experience on a “ladder” and more the demonstration of respect for elders who have earned it and following their example when circumstances warrant it. GH

  10. Stephen D. Pillow Says:

    Senator Hart,

    Thank you for your response regard the “virgin” elected officials and your example of having been one. However, I feel that you are far too self-deprecating about your lack of experience in the legislative and political realms. Had you not taken a significant role in the 1972 Presidential campaign of Senator McCarthy having worked for him while he was in the Senate, and hadn’t you been working behind the scenes in staff positions within the Congressional world prior to your first run for elective office? That is the kind of experience that aided you in get your feet on the ground before “working one’s way up the ladder”. Your prior experience stood you in good stead as a candidate for your Senate run.
    The above is what I remember about you from working with you on your 1988 Presidential campaign. My memory is not what it used to be, so I apologize in advance, if I have misstated anything about your prior legislative and political experience.

  11. Paul G Says:


    One of our Constitution’s few major flaws – obvious with history’s hindsight – was the un-limiting of the presidential term until 150+ years later. But with man’s proven penchant to maximize power – coupled with recent decades’ weaponizing of technology to disinform and disempower citizens – I believe We need to limit the presidential office to a single term of six years.

    The current quasi-foreign agent occupant coupled with his abuse of modern technology that instantly reaches 50% of the US electorate, makes all prior occupants seem like virgins by contrast – including Nixon, Harding, et al.
    Endless campaigning has devoured the governing ethic so much so that the current occupant’s staff began his re-election campaign on January 20, 2017.

    But with malice toward none and charity for all, let’s grandfather this limit not only to protect our republic from man’s empire whims, but to restore our envied role as idealists who truly practice at home what we preach abroad.

  12. Michael Says:

    Stephen D. Pillow, today we lost a powerful argument against term limits: Elijah Cummings.

Leave a Reply

All comments are reviewed by a moderator prior to approval and are subject to the UCD blog use policy.