At this time of the year, as we attend graduation ceremonies for family and friends and reflect upon the messages offered by commencement speakers, we may want to think about the world of politics for a moment. There may be a lesson or two we can learn from the manner in which our colleges and universities operate.
A graduation is a happy event that marks the successful conclusion of an academic experience. Students celebrate their accomplishments and accept congratulations as they bid farewell to school.
Contrast graduations with how our elected officials leave the world of politics. Sometimes the end comes at the conclusion of a bitter election campaign. For others, it is an arrest, an indictment or an embarrassing personal revelation that brings a career to a sudden close. Although there are some elected officials who leave the public spotlight on their own terms, they are few and far between. And many of those who “retire” and choose not to seek re-election are pushed to their decisions – by the threat of a primary challenge, sinking poll numbers, or a phone call from a powerful county chairman.
More often than not, the end of a political career is not something we celebrate with same enthusiasm as the end of an academic career. Let’s explore why.
For starters, education is something that generally takes place over a set period of time, with a defined starting point, a goal and a scheduled end point: four years to earn a diploma and a degree, and then move on. Political careers have less structure. They have starting points, but the goals are not always clear, and they may differ substantially, depending on an elected official’s political party. For those in legislative bodies like ours in New Jersey, there is no planned end point — nor is there a specific goal akin to graduating — since there are no term limits. For those in places with term limits, there are aspirations to higher offices that blur or erase the end points.
Taking things a little further, there is a progression that takes place from year to year in education. Students enter as freshman and learn the ropes before they are accorded the privileges of upper classmen. In state legislatures and Congress, freshman lawmakers have the same duties and responsibilities as colleagues who have been in office for a decade or more. Their votes carry the same weight, even though they have far less experience and institutional knowledge.
Schools also have standards for admission. They consider test scores, transcripts and other factors to ensure they have the best and brightest in their institutions. But there are no educational standards required to get one’s name on the ballot. An ample number of signatures on a petition is about all that is needed to do the trick. Lawmakers make critical decisions on issues that directly impact the quality of our lives, such as fiscal policy, education and healthcare. Yet there is no requirement that the men and women making these decisions have demonstrated the intellect to address them.
Lastly, academic institutions are very good at weeding out students who fail to cut the mustard. In fact, students can flunk out after just one semester. But once lawmakers take office — barring an extraordinary event – they are there for the full term, regardless of how they perform.
So should places such as New Jersey incorporate elements of academia into their governments? Should lawmakers’ official duties and responsibilities vary with experience? Should we set educational standards for holding office? Or establish term limits so lawmakers have clearly defined end points and goals?
No, we are not ready for such drastic changes, and the truth is we may never be. Politics and education are different fields that serve different functions in society. But there is a value in examining successful models from other disciplines to learn how others approach challenges and build foundations for success.
A few years ago, political scientist Larry Sabato wrote a book titled A More Perfect Constitution in which he laid out 23 proposals to re-invent federal government. The suggestions were bold and radical. They called for changing the structure of the House and Senate, establishing a new, six-year, one-time presidential term, and overhauling the primary system that political parties use to select their candidates for president.
Odds are Sabato’s proposals are too extreme and too controversial to gain widespread support, but they do provide a starting place for the constructive dialogue and conversation we need to change things for the better. Likewise, we are not about to re-model government after colleges and universities, but if the concept sparks debate and discussion, perhaps it can lead to something good.
# # #