Resolute Square

The Seriousness of Unseriousness

Having unserious people in elected office who only want the title but not the job of working for the American people is a serious problem, explains Trygve Olson.
Credit: Kevin McCarthy
Published:December 13, 2022

Today, our nation faces consequential challenges that, at times, seem unparalleled in size and scope. Threats of nuclear weapons being used in a war in Europe. Economic challenges which we haven't witnessed in decades. Electoral divides are so great that far too many no longer accept electoral defeat by fellow citizens they view as enemies who want to destroy America. While we didn't start these fires, the unknown is, will we rise to the occasion as previous generations have done to fight them?
Long ago, I worked for a successful Governor who would say, "There are only two kinds of politicians -- those who want to do and those who want to be." Over the next three decades working in politics, I found this wisdom to be sage. But, unfortunately, I also watched an ever-increasing trend of those seeking office emerging from the “to be” category while those who wanted to do were decreasing. This reality begs some critical questions.
First, is it the kind of people who seek elected office that has changed?

Second, are we, as the current generation of Americans, so different from previous generations in what we desire for our country?

Finally, what is needed to correct America's current course with the stakes as high as they’ve ever been?  

While working with those fighting for democracy overseas, one of my roles was hosting meetings between democratic opposition leaders from places like Belarus and members of Congress either in Europe or in Washington for meetings at the Capitol. At most of these meetings, the majority of Members were well-informed or at least had read their briefing materials. Inevitably, however, there would be a few who didn't seem to know Belarus from Belfast. They would always leave these allies in the fight for democracy, wondering how in a country like America could elect such people to such high office.
I would point out that those elected to office were representatives of a country's population and that the Congress, particularly the House of Representatives, was a microcosm of America. I am certain this was never terribly reassuring. Thus, post-midterms, we are about to learn much about ourselves as a nation. As the jockeying on the Republican side facing a far slimmer majority than they expected is unfolding, we are already witnessing it.
It is impossible to say what percentage of Congresspeople are serious public servants there “to do” things to better the lives of their constituents versus those unserious ones who merely want “to be” in Congress. But, at present, I know Kevin McCarthy, the wannabee Speaker, is demonstrating an increasing lack of seriousness each time he compromises with those on his right flank, even to the point of considering allowing them to remove him at any point in time. There is far more to come, regardless of McCarthy's fate.
The next Congress will have to raise the debt ceiling. Failure to do so in a timely manner would cause the United States Government to default on its debts. If you doubt it would matter, as some unserious Republicans are trying to say, look at any bill in your wallet. You know that thing on them about "full faith and credit of the United States?" Well, that is at stake with that vote by the people we elected. On this, too, McCarthy and an unserious majority of Republicans seem willing to risk the good of the country.
We live in a time of carnival barkers and clowns running for public office. Our enemies see this as an indication of the demise of the values and order which has held them in check since the end of World War II. Those values and that order have composed the foundation of unprecedented peace, prosperity, and liberty for far more of humankind than at any other point in history. The Republican House Majority will show us quickly if we remain serious enough to confront the challenges we face or if we have become a nation where unseriousness - and increasing democratic instability - rules.