I'm fond of this article because it helps me keep things in perspective. It's very easy to get jaded about politics today. Maybe that's especially acute for a political journalist living in Washington, but poll after poll shows a dyspeptic public that hates Congress, disdains politics, and has little faith in government to fix anything. Even the most sober analysts assure us that it's even worse than it looks.
Clark's article is a good reminder that even if this a low ebb, the issues the nation faces today are not new. If there really was a Golden Age of American government—and most Golden Ages are chimerical—it wasn't in living memory. Clark's piece is also a reassuring reminder that while the solutions to America's politician crisis may not be easy, there are good ideas that exist, and have for some time.
Joseph Clark was no peanut-gallery pundit. While he spoke about the need for Americans to run for office, he walked the walk, too: When the article was published, he was mayor of Philadelphia, and two years later he ran for U.S. Senate, serving two terms as an outspoken liberal Democrat. In some respects, his diagnosis and solutions are clearly those of a big-government progressive of post-war era: Clark writes of the 1880s, "Men still quoted with approval Jefferson's dictum that government is best when governing least," an idea that gained new currency in the 1980s. Much of it, however, still sounds surprisingly fresh.
Clark argues that a central problem is a bad pipeline for good politicians. To get into office in 1955, he wrote, a man (and of course the piece almost entirely concerns men) has to either work up through drudge work, be a "maverick" and run from outside the establishment, or be begged to run by a party, like Eisenhower. "Almost every year the political leaders have to look around for some citizen willing to be drafted who has not come up through the normal political channels," Clark writes. "They have to take what they can get, and too often it is pretty bad." The nation needs more professionals—from the business, medicine, and so on—to run for office.
How true is this still today? Certainly, the outsider path is still open, and as the cost of running for office goes up, both parties are eager to sign up candidates who can fund their campaigns in whole or part. For every successful example—Mitt Romney, for example—there's a Carly Fiorina or a Sean Eldridge. Overall, however, it seems as if non-career-politicians have better luck today, as this excellent chart shows.
Clark also complains that politicians are underpaid relative to their opportunities in the private sector—an argument still made forcefully today—and he calls for more women to run for office: "Women should be encouraged to participate more actively, especially where their husbands are also interested. By and large, women tend to raise the level of integrity and imagination in politics." While the first sentence is enough to make one cringe in 2015, the second sentence has been borne out surprisingly well by recent social-science research. My colleague Derek Thompson reported this month on how having women in working groups improves results, and by some standards women make more effective legislators than men.