Symposium | Revitalizing Political Leadership

Leading to Govern

By Daniel Stid

Tagged GovernanceLeadership

The current moment may seem like an odd time to herald a promising renewal of political leadership in the United States. In the presidential election, two men—one in his ninth decade, the other about to enter it—will stage a rematch of their dispiriting 2020 contest. As of May, their favorability ratings remain submerged in the low 40 percent range. One candidate tried and failed to overturn the last election. This disgraceful act hasn’t kept Americans from holding his opponent in the same low regard.

The profound doubts that Americans have about our political leaders extend well beyond our presidential candidates. A recent Pew Research Center poll found that 83 percent of Americans believe their elected officials do not care “what people like them think.” Of the 24 democratic countries in Pew’s global survey, only respondents from Spain had less faith in their politicians.

The poll contained a silver lining for democracy in America. When asked about different kinds of government, 75 percent of American respondents reported rule by elected representatives is a “somewhat good” or “very good” system. This compares with 66 percent of Americans saying the same for direct democracy, 48 percent for technocracy, 26 percent for autocracy, and 15 percent for military rule.

So while we may not like our representatives, we still like representative democracy. Can we make it work? Can we close the gap between our dislike of what is happening in national politics and our widely shared ideals about our form of government? We are used to viewing our politicians as part of the problem with representative democracy. In this symposium, we will see the extent to which political leadership can be part of the solution—and perhaps the most critical and readily accessible element.

This shift in perspective requires us to adopt new vantage points on political leadership. Instead of viewing representative democracy as primarily a voter-driven endeavor, we need to appreciate the equally if not more important role politicians play in making it work. Rather than remaining transfixed by the national conflagration, we need to look beyond it, to states and localities, where rising generations of politicians have opportunities to lead in new ways. Finally, with all the ideologues and show horses sounding off and dominating media coverage, it is easy to miss the potential for solutions-oriented workhorses to get things done in government.

They are demonstrating it every day. All across the country, in statehouses, county commissions, city councils, and mayors’ offices, thousands of dedicated and pragmatic politicians are leading in a responsible way, exercising the powers of the offices to which they have been elected to solve problems in the public interest—what I call leading to govern. There are more of these public-spirited leaders than we know, and we are in their debt. Yet for representative democracy to flourish, we will need even more of them in the years ahead. Let’s turn to how we can make way for them.

The Paradox of Representative Democracy

We need to begin with the paradox at the heart of representative democracy. On the one hand, it is a political system in which citizens are in aggregate the boss. We engage in self-government by voting in recurring elections to select the political leaders we consent to be ruled by—and discharge those we do not. On the other hand, the capabilities and virtues of our politicians really matter. Political leaders determine whether we will address the complex problems we face—or not. They respect and perpetuate our Constitution and governing institutions—or not. They cultivate a widely shared sense of reflective patriotism—or not.

At their best, then, elected officials not only respond to but also inform, shape, and elevate the input and aspirations of citizens. At their worst, they ignore, dumb down, distort, or inflame public opinion to serve their own purposes. The caliber of our politicians determines the health of our representative democracy much more than we care to admit.

It seems undemocratic to acknowledge this reality. It runs counter to the distrust and even disdain Americans have harbored for their political leaders going back to the founding. The Anti-Federalists lost their battle against the establishment of an “extended republic,” which they regarded as an oxymoron. (In their view, only smaller, relatively homogenous republics could be sustained.) Still, the Anti-Federalists’ suspicion of politicians trying to rule them from afar won the war of ideas. And ever since Andrew Jackson instilled a populist ethos in American politics, our quest to cut politicians down a notch has continued apace.

Now we are perhaps more obsessed than ever with the specter of bad political leaders. When they manage to slip through and win elections, we rally to resist their rule, hold them accountable, and prevent degradations to our democracy. These are critical activities. But they are only half the equation in securing democratic leadership. In our determination to check leaders with bad ambitions, we have lost sight of the importance of honorable ambition and good leaders in a democracy—and how to encourage them.

As Joseph Schlesinger observed in his classic if now overlooked book Ambition and Politics, “A political system unable to kindle ambitions for office is as much in danger of breaking down as one unable to restrain ambitions.” We need to get better at noticing, understanding, commending, and inspiring honorable political ambitions. Democracy in America depends on it.

Revitalizing Political Leadership in the Laboratories of Democracy

Having underscored the centrality of good political leadership for representative democracy, we need to ask where and how politicians driven by honorable ambition can make their mark. Spoiler alert: For the vast majority of them, it will not be in Washington, D.C.

Political scientist Jennifer Lawless has identified 519,682 elected positions in the United States. Only 537 of these officeholders, or one-tenth of 1 percent of the total, serve at the federal level. Nearly 19,000 are elected to serve in state governments. The remaining half million politicians, more than 95 percent of those we elect across the country, serve at the local level.

It is tempting to use a baseball analogy and see the state and local levels of government as the minor leagues and the federal government as the major league. After all, healthy majorities of lawmakers in both the House and the Senate first won election to local and/or state offices before coming to Congress. The 118th Congress includes, for example, 264 former state or territorial legislators, 13 governors, ten lieutenant governors, six state attorneys general, six secretaries of state, and 41 mayors. Among the 17 politicians who have served as President or vice president over the past 50 years, nine first got elected to state or local office.

The pipeline for federal office thus does begin more often than not in state and local politics. If we want to bring more pragmatic, solutions-oriented politicians to Washington in the 2030s, then we will need to replenish the pipeline from the bottom up in the remainder of the 2020s. That said, it would be a mistake to regard these “lower” levels of government as the bush leagues. They are where much of the political leadership and governance of the country takes place.

Given our preoccupation—stoked by the polarization-industrial complex—with the Thunderdome of national politics, it is easy to forget the United States is a profoundly decentralized democracy. The bulk of the policies, funding, and services that directly impact Americans’ day-to-day lives are governed at the state and local levels. These include, for example, policing, the justice system, public education (K-12 and higher ed), zoning, housing, economic development, transportation, public health, and election administration.

As Amanda Litman points out in her 2017 book Run for Something, seeing localities and states for what they are—the primary building blocks of our government—opens myriad new pathways to political leadership. If you are a leader who wants to get things done for your community, you have ample opportunities to run for office and set about, as Litman puts it, “fixing the system yourself.”

State and local politicians live and work in the places for which they are making and implementing policies. They can bring local knowledge and networks to bear as they govern—and, in turn, they can be held accountable by knowledgeable networks of constituents. This dynamic enables these elected officials to tap into and reinforce the greater trust that Americans have in the levels of government that are closer to them.

A 2022 Pew survey reaffirms this pattern: Sixty-six percent of respondents reported a favorable view of their local government, and 54 percent did of their state government, compared to only 32 percent who thought well of the federal government. In effect, most of us are Anti-Federalists now. Rather than fight against this outlook, we should work with it.

Closing Gaps in Representation

The abundance of opportunities to become a political leader at the local and state levels enables us to begin closing glaring gaps in representation. Foremost among them is the dearth of Americans in their 20s, 30s, and early 40s in elected office. In response to issues like climate change and artificial intelligence, we need rising generations of leaders bringing new perspectives and constructive visions to politics, along with a knack for realizing them. Moreover, given the progress women have made in recent decades and the more diverse demographic profiles of these generational cohorts, boosting young people’s presence will help fix the persistent underrepresentation of women and people of color.

However, at the very moment that we need a new generation of leaders to emerge, politics has become an even more disfavored, disreputable, and discouraging calling for them. Lawless, her co-author Richard Fox, and political scientist Shauna Shames have found that polarization, policy gridlock, and the money chase are huge turnoffs for younger generations in particular. Even for those millennials and Zoomers who consider themselves leaders, becoming a politician is rarely something they want to do. They look to lead in the private or social sectors instead.

To be sure, these turnoffs are real at the local and state levels, but they are easier to surmount than those looming at the federal level. It is possible to get things done in local and state government in ways that are now elusive in Washington. Polarization exists, but there are fewer rewards to stoking conflict and more to solving problems. You may need to raise thousands or even tens of thousands of dollars to support your local or state campaign. But few candidates will need to raise hundreds of thousands, let alone millions, to run.

In the United States—and, indeed, around the world—a growing number of political and civil society organizations are working to encourage and equip promising young leaders to run for office. Many of these organizations focus on recruiting and supporting women and/or people of color in order to fix the current underrepresentation of these groups in elected office. Others enlist candidates with backgrounds in national service or the military. Still others focus on engaging candidates dedicated to advancing policies in particular domains, e.g., climate, education, or immigration.

Getting From Here to There

Getting elected, especially the first time, is hard. But it is not the most challenging part of being a successful politician. Election winners subsequently need to govern and represent diverse constituencies, working with or against other elected leaders who have their own agendas to advance and different constituents to represent. And the newly elected must do all this in the context of governing institutions bedeviled by hyperpartisanship and arcane rules. The pulling and hauling needed to lead within them requires making painful trade-offs and balancing idealism and pragmatism.

Navigating these hard choices is not easy for anyone. It is challenging for candidates who have run based on their identities or issues that are important to them. Grappling with these dilemmas can leave them feeling like they are giving up a part of who they are or what they stand for.

Governing in the current environment is particularly difficult for pragmatic, solutions-oriented leaders who seek to get substantive things done in elected office. The research of political scientists Danielle Thomsen and Andrew Hall shows why. Moderates are more apt to be dissuaded by a polarized environment that makes it harder for them to forge solutions—likely because, relative to partisan ideologues, they are more interested in solving public problems than simply taking stands to rile up their bases of support. Meanwhile, the rising costs of holding office include exposing oneself not only to hyperpartisan vitriol but also, for a growing number—especially women and minorities—to online threats and intimidation.

Problem-solving leaders are thus opting out of politics at precisely the time we need more of them to opt in. Frequently proposed remedies include improving our electoral systems through, for example, nonpartisan redistricting, campaign finance reform, open primaries, ranked-choice voting, et cetera. At the margins, these changes could potentially help elect more constructive politicians. But successful reforms remain few and far between, and their beneficial effects tend to be muted relative to what their single-minded advocates promise.

We can’t keep waiting. Rather than changing the rules of the game to get better politicians, we need to get better politicians first. Then we can adjust the rules of the game. Ultimately, inspiring, enlisting, and supporting more pragmatic, solutions-oriented political leaders at the local and state levels of government is the most straightforward route to a better politics. Let me describe two initial steps we can take to go about this.

The most important step is in the realm of ideas. We need to recover and uphold a simple but enduring truth: Leading to govern in a free society is an honorable profession. Indeed, Aristotle regarded it as the noblest and most challenging vocation that a great-souled leader might pursue. This calling has rarely been more demanding than it is today. To convince worthy and capable leaders to pursue it, we need to restore the luster and honor that are its due.

We can begin doing this by identifying and telling the stories of effective and exemplary political leaders getting things done for those they represent at the local and state levels. As young leaders on the sidelines of politics see how politicians who share their values, politics, and demographics are leading to govern, they can begin to see themselves doing it, too. Some will raise their hands and run themselves. The flywheel of a virtuous cycle will begin to turn.

The second step is to supply the encouragement, leadership frameworks, professional development, and communities that up-and-coming elected officials seeking to govern need to succeed. For politicians bent on getting ahead via zealous partisanship, ideological purity, and/or shameless grandstanding, all sorts of partisan and media entities stand ready to help. In contrast, those seeking to govern responsibly—by, for instance, mastering policy domains, balancing trade-offs, accepting half-a-loaf wins, building cross-partisan coalitions, and attending to effective implementation—can often find themselves isolated.

Fortunately, civil society groups are stepping up. The leaders of several of the most impressive ones have written essays for this symposium. They are helping leaders with an instinct to serve others consider whether, why, and how they might run for office; identifying the most effective lawmakers in all 50 statehouses (and what makes them so); providing training, tools, and templates to officials overseeing the implementation and refinement of policies; and building up supportive networks, cohorts, and caucuses of like-minded elected officials—on the center-left, the center-right, and spanning both—who are leading to govern.

It might seem like these nonprofits are fighting an uphill battle. But they don’t need to win it themselves. In the end, it will be the stellar political leaders they recruit and support, and the subsequent waves of people inspired to follow in those leaders’ footsteps, who will turn the tide. To give up hope and trust in political leadership is to do likewise with representative democracy.

From the Symposium

Revitalizing Political Leadership


Politics: An Honorable Profession

By Debbie Cox Bultan


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Daniel Stid is the Executive Director of Lyceum Labs, a nonprofit project dedicated to reimagining the roles of political leaders and parties in the twenty-first century.

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