We’ve clearly had a failure of leadership in this country. The political system is not working as it should. Big problems are not being addressed.
But what’s the nature of that failure? The leading theory is that it’s the corruption: There is so much money flowing through Washington that the special interests get what they want and everyone else gets the shaft. Another theory has to do with insularity: The elites spend so much time within the Acela corridor that they don’t have a clue about what is going on beyond it.
There’s merit in both theories. But I’d point to something deeper: Over the past few decades, thousands of good people have gone into public service, but they have found themselves enmeshed in a system that drains them of their sense of vocation.
Let’s start with a refresher on the difference between a vocation and a career. A career is something you choose; a vocation is something you are called to.
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A person choosing a career asks: How can I get the best job or win the most elections?
A person summoned by a vocation asks: How can my existing abilities be put in service of the greatest common good?
A career is a job you do as long as the benefits outweigh the costs; a vocation involves falling in love with something, having a conviction about it and making it part of your personal identity.
A vocation involves promises to some ideal, it reveals itself in a sense of enjoyment as you undertake its tasks and it can’t be easily quit when setbacks and humiliations occur. As others have noted, it involves a double negative – you can’t not do this thing.
It’s easy to be cynical, but I really do think most people entered public life with this sense of idealistic calling. When you spend time around government officials, you are constantly struck by the fact that they are more impressive in private than in public. Somewhere at the base of their personal story, you usually find an earnest desire to serve some vulnerable group.
The fact is, political lives are simply not that glamorous or powerful or fun. Most politicians wouldn’t put up with all the fund-raising, the stupid partisan games, unless they were driven at some level by the right reasons.
But over the years, many get swallowed by the system: all the calculating consultants; the ephemeral spin of the media cycle; the endless meetings with supplicants; the constant grind of public criticism; the way campaigning swallows time so they get to spend less time thinking about policy; the way service to a partisan team eclipses service to the cause that brought them into this in the first place.
For example, Hillary Clinton seems to have been first inspired by a desire to serve children, but over the decades, walls of hard-shell combativeness formed. Mitt Romney seems to be an exceptionally fine person, but when he was campaigning, his true nature was often hidden under a film of political formulas.
As the poet David Whyte once put it, “Work, like marriage, is a place you can lose yourself more easily perhaps than finding yourself … losing all sense of our own voice, our own contributions and conversation.”
It plays out differently in different cases. But a careerist mentality often replaces the vocation mentality. The careerist mentality frequently makes politicians timid, driven more by fear of failure than by any positive ideal.
Such people are besieged by the short-term calculations and often forget about their animating vision and long-term ideal. They rationalize that, since the opposition is so evil, anything that serves their career serves the country. This is not just bad for the people involved but for the system itself.
People with a vocation mindset have their eyes fixed on the long game. They are willing to throw themselves toward their goals imaginatively, boldly and remorselessly.
People who operate a career mindset, on the other hand, often put self-preservation above all. Nothing gets done, because everybody’s doing the same old, safe, rigid thing.
I do think there’s often an arc to vocation. People start with something outside themselves. Then, in the scramble to get established, the ambition of self takes over. But then at some point, people realize the essential falseness of all that and they try to reconnect with their original animating ideals.
And so I think it possible to imagine a revival of vocation. If Clinton is elected, maybe even she can remind us that we’ve all developed these bad habits, that most of us secretly detest the game we’re in and the way we are playing it.
It would be an act of amazing bravery if she could lead people to strip away all the careerist defense mechanisms and remember their original vows and passions.
David Brooks is a columnist for the New York Times.