A Time to Serve

There is an enormous difference between discussing a serious problem and solving it. We need more problem solvers.

I was a young legislative assistant to a Republican member of the House of Representatives on September 11, 2001. I was in my cubicle in Rayburn when the World Trade Center towers and the Pentagon were hit. I was among those rushing out when word spread that another plane was headed our way. Though I’ve spent much of the following two decades in various government posts, never have I felt more of a patriotic duty than on that day and the weeks that followed. Our nation had been attacked. Fellow citizens had been murdered. 

What can be lost all these years later is how that day rattled the nation. It felt like we were now in a different world, a different era. Most pressing, though, was that Americans were scared that more and worse attacks were right around the corner. Lives were on the line. I, and I’m sure many others, had a sense that our country’s future was at stake. We had to get to work.

It was surely necessary to have public debates about how best  to reorganize various homeland-security and intelligence-gathering agencies, give law-enforcement the tools it needed, and incapacitate those who’d done us harm and planned to do more. But after such important discussions, things had to get done. Legislation had to be written and shepherded through the process, coalitions had to be assembled, compromises had to be struck, programs had to be administered. America needed the work, not just a conversation about the work.

When I look around today, though, I might not see a problem as acute as an imminent terrorist attack, I do see problems as serious. We must address issues related to COVID; Afghanistan, China, and Russia; the falling fertility rate; the gargantuan national debt; troubled education institutions; limited economic mobility; a sense of hopelessness among many Americans; declining faith in institutions and democracy. 

Today, though, there is a gap between those doing public service and those involved in what I call the “Commentary Industrial Complex” (CIC): lobbyists, cable-news figures, talk-radio personalities, editorial boards, columnists, journalists, pollsters, podcast hosts, policy entrepreneurs—anyone shaping the discussion of public affairs but without being actually responsible for the work of governing. The gap can perhaps best be explained as a divide between those doing the work and those talking about the work that needs done.

This is not an attack on these fields or those who work in them. I believe that such professions are important, even essential. And there are certainly people in each field who I believe to be not just talented but a gift to the nation. I, personally, learn a great deal from them. But we have to come to grips with the national costs of having so many people employed in a sprawling enterprise that treats self-government as a matter of observation instead of participation.

I see two types of problems related to those in the commentariat, things that can actually do harm to our public life. The first is that an astonishingly high percentage of the most prominent “CIC” professionals have little to no governing experience. They have not been formed by the institutions of governing. So they often know too little about the inner workings of government and too little about the content of the subjects they cover. Moreover, they haven’t been forced to learn the dispositions and behaviors necessary for successful inside-the-system leadership—things like civility, accommodation, restraint, and compromise. So even though these folks are shaping the public’s views about what the most important issues are and what we should think about them, they might not know what the most important issues actually are, what ought to be done about them, or how to behave in ways that will enable these issues to be addressed. In the worst instances, those with a platform but no experience can give the public a distorted picture of governing.

The second issue is that there is simply an enormous difference between discussing a serious problem and solving it. Lobbyists and media personalities—mostly for financial reasons—thrive on conflict. Nasty fights are good for the bottom line, and long-lasting nasty fights are even better. So they are often incentivized to turn up the heat, instigate fights, draw battle lines, keep spats going. In other words, the CIC fosters conditions perfect for perpetuating conflict, not for resolving problems. 

What results is public discourse that leads many Americans to think our problems can’t be solved. It acculturates some young people to the idea that public service amounts to separating friends from enemies, protesting, tweeting, and condemning the system. But in a democratic republic, political conflict is valuable only to the extent that it serves as a prelude to a solution. Tragically, some now seem to see clicks, likes, draggings, and trollings as the goal. 

One way to begin solving this problem is to have industries within the CIC begin prioritizing governing experience in their hiring and promotion decisions.

But for right now, as we mark the anniversary of the nation’s most tragic day in a generation and think about the many serious problems we currently face, we need to transition from a public service of observation to a public service of participation. I want to ask those currently in the balcony to move to the stage. If you can, please find a way, even if just temporarily, to apply your great talents to the work of solving problems inside the system. Put aside for a while lobbying, polling, commenting, critiquing, editorializing. Run for your local school board, serve on a state or town commission, take a job with a mayor or governor.

And if those options are not possible right now then, please, commit to using your station to foster the conditions that will enable others to solve problems. That means not demonizing others, not publicizing the hotheads, not stoking flames, and not drawing attention to toxic issues of marginal importance. It means, instead, appreciating complexity and trade-offs, encouraging deliberation and compromise, praising effective workhorses, and spotlighting governing successes.