Death of the Statesman

One thing I find to be a common topic of conversation in the USA, Canada, and with expats in México is dissatisfaction with our governments and the people who are in charge. A poll taken in August of 2023 indicated the approval rating for the U.S. Congress is 19% and has remained near this number for the past couple of years. U.S. President Biden’s approval in a Gallup poll taken in September 2023 was 41%. In a poll taken during the same period, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau had a close-to-record-low approval rating of 33%. An exception to these low approval ratings is Mexican President Lopez Obrador, or AMLO, who enjoys an approval rating over 60%. One wonders why the approval numbers in the USA and Canada have gotten so low in recent years. What has changed to cause so much public dissatisfaction? 

From the time of the American Revolution there have been disagreements among our leaders about the direction the country should take, but it remained a respectful debate because the founders all held a long-term vision about the country’s direction beyond their term of office. The first four presidents of the USA were among the founders, and after serving as president they all returned to their private lives. They were all referred to as statesmen. They believed that serving the people as government officials was both a privilege and obligation. Their motivation for serving was for the good of the electorate. None of them considered government service a vocation or a way to gain wealth. They were all wealthy and had careers in the private sector before and after they served their country. It only took 17 days for them to write the Declaration of Independence. In today’s polarized government that could never happen in such a short time.

When I was growing up in the ‘40s and ‘50s, the word statesman was often used when referring to individuals in government who were held in high regard by both political parties and the public at large. The word has slowly disappeared from our vocabulary and has been replaced by the word politician. So, what is the difference between these two monikers? According to definition, a statesman is an individual who puts doing good for the public he serves as the highest objective. On the other hand, a politician is an individual whose primary goal is to be elected and/or gain power. Some say a politician is one who thinks of the next election and a statesman is one who thinks of the next generation.

What has changed that caused the decline of statesmen and the rise of politicians? Most people would say that many lawyers run for public office. While that is true, in recent years the number of lawyers in government service has actually decreased, starting in the ‘60s. Now, entry professions include lobbyists, think tank researchers, business leaders, and public service advocates. Many of those elected consider government service their life profession, so their objective is to continue to get re-elected to gain power, influence and, of course, wealth.

While some propose time limits for many of these elected positions, these proposals fail because the elected public officials whose vote is required for passage, vote not to limit their terms. Most of them start campaigning for the next election as soon as they are elected and that becomes their primary activity and motivation. The decisions they make on our behalf are tainted by doing what will get them re-elected. They endorse legislation that favors special interest groups; they march in lockstep with what is popular in the polls; rarely if ever stray from their own party; and pander to lobbyists rather than put the good of the country first. This is when they no longer hold or deserve the title of “statesmen” and become “politicians.”

Additionally, these politicians amplify their differences with the other party instead of searching for common ground. The voting public gets caught up in these exacerbated differences and becomes even more polarized. This is not good for our country that was founded on respectful and thoughtful compromise. To add insult to injury, these politicians are rewarded for this bad behavior by lobbyists and special interest groups who invest billions of dollars each year promoting their agendas. Add a compromised press whose primary purpose is to support this behavior, and the result is an insurmountable situation that seems impossible to reverse.

Given this reality, one wonders if anyone can reverse this trend and once again succeed as a statesman. The good news is that there are still a few around, although they are rare.  

Why have Mexican President AMLO’s ratings remained high? First of all, he is not well rated by the elites, other politicians, the press, and the wealthy. However, he is rated highly by the common people in Mexico as he has done things that have made their lives somewhat better, such as raising the minimum wage, creating a retirement plan, starting a jobs training program for the youth, paying entitlements to the poor, and lowering the cost of utilities. None of these reforms were endorsed by any of the political classes, the elites, or the wealthy because they saw no direct benefit from them.

One can argue that he has done little to promote the green agenda. Instead, he has subsidized the nationalized fossil fuel industry to stabilize costs for the poor. This has drawn criticism from environmentalists and free market advocates who say this action will destroy the energy industry.

Several of his pet projects are over budget and behind schedule. One that has drawn criticism is the Trans-Isthmic Railroad in Tehuantepec which AMLO directed to be updated to carry freight more efficiently from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean providing a practical alternative to the Panama Canal which has been stalled for years.

Another controversial project endorsed by AMLO is the Mayan Train which is due to start operation in December. It opens the Mayan Peninsula to easy access. It will go slightly over 1,500 kilometers, have 34 stations, go near seven airports, and give easy access to 26 archeological sites.

Both of these projects will benefit present and future generations even though they were both over budget and completed late, which draws criticism from his political opponents and environmental activists.

Many call him a visionary. Visionaries are planning for the next generation, a characteristic of a statesman.

He has also maintained a frugal lifestyle when he could have taken advantage of his position with all the usual perks of the job. This characteristic has endeared him to the common people.

I am not suggesting that AMLO has done everything right or perfectly, as he has not. But his first priority has been to the people he serves, another characteristic of a statesman. He will be judged by the passing of time to see if the things he championed produce lasting benefits to the people who elected him. One thing that can be said about him now is that at least he had the courage to try to promote things that would produce lasting dividends for the people he served regardless of the criticism he received. Sadly, not many government leaders have this distinction.  

Finding statesmen is certainly more difficult now than in the past. The world needs more of them now, but the supply is not equal to the demand. The desire for power often overtakes those who are newly elected, who have lofty goals in the beginning, but are soon swallowed up by the inertia of politics. It takes a strong and determined individual to stay the course amid a sea of corruption. We need more statesmen and fewer politicians. Hopefully they are not all dead yet. 

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Tim Eyermann
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