The first draft of my most recent essay had a big chunk on politicians: running for office was the final of three suggestions I made to people who want to reform our government. I removed that chunk, but with PDF 12 hours away, I figured I’d post it anyway, as its own little musing. So here it is:
“Suppose two politicians are running for president, and one goes through the farm section and is asked, `What are you going to do about the farm question?’ And he knows right away â€“ bang, bang, bang. Now he goes to the next campaigner who comes through. `What are you going to do about the farm problem?’ `Well, I don’t know. I used to be a general, and I don’t know anything about farming. But it seems to me to be a very difficult problem, because for twelve, fifteen, twenty years people have been struggling with it, and people say they know how to solve the farm problem. And it must be a hard problem. So the way I intend to solve the farm problem is to gather around me a lot of people who know something about it, to look at all the experience that we have had with this problem before, to take a certain amount of time at it and then to come to some conclusion in a reasonable way about it. Now, I can’t tell you ahead of time what conclusion, but I can give you some of the principles I’ll try to use…’
“Now such a man would never get anywhere in this country, I think. It’s never been tried, anyway. This is in the attitude of mind of the populace, that they have to have an answer and that a man who gives an answer is better than a man who gives no answer, when the real fact of the matter is, in most cases, it is the other way around.”
This is how Richard Feynman explained modern politicking in a 1969 lecture. I often quote this passage, because I think it describes our ideal candidate: someone who puts time into making decisions, who gathers facts before doing so, who doesn’t make false promises in exchange for votes.
That’s why I was excited to see Larry Lessig consider a Congressional bid. But my first reaction wasn’t positive: Is that really the best place for him? He wouldn’t really fit in, and his ideas would fall on deaf ears. Eventually, I got it: not fitting in is exactly the point. The most fundamental way to change Congress is to populate it with a new breed. While Lessig would have been very lonely during his first term, his run would have inspired others among us to do the same, and slowly, the tide would turn.
Lessig decided not to run; thankfully, it was not because he felt Congress was the wrong place for him. I believe that it is, and that his decision not to run makes him an even better fit for the job. Congress needs more people who think about running and decide against it. Such a person is ambitious and passionate, but also humble. Such a person thinks things through and makes prudent decisions, without regard for celebrity or public perception.
If I were to suggest a more long-term goal for Lessig’s new Change Congress campaign, it would be to transform the public’s idea of what constitutes a good public leader: I would replace charisma with gravitas, expedience with prudence, celebrity with humility. I’ve noticed the latter qualities in many of the people I work around—many of them have scientific backgrounds and cannot avoid making wise decisions in spite of themselves. I know it would be hard for them to leave their research-grounded jobs in hard science for the daily life of a politician, and even harder for the average voter to become acquainted with their style. So I’m not expecting this to happen soon. But if we’ve quintupled the number of scientists in Congress by 2016 (there are currently four), I think we’ll be on our way.