“We urge you to decline to nominate or hire corporate executives, lobbyists, and prominent corporate consultants to serve in high office,” the advocates demanded in their letter to the president-elect last week. Such people, they argue, are incapable of “working in the service of the general welfare.”
Last month, 13 House Democrats made a similar demand in a letter to Senate leaders. “As elected leaders, we should stop trying to make unsupportable distinctions between which corporate affiliations are acceptable for government service and which are not,” they wrote. All should be considered unacceptable, they said.
Business or industry expertise “has been shown … to be nothing more than an unsustainable excuse for inside dealing and corporate favoritism,” they wrote. The letter was signed by Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.), chairman of the House Rules Committee and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), the face of the House Progressive Caucus.
This is the sort of self-righteous woke drivel one expects from a college sophomore, not organizations and politicians who want to be taken seriously in an unapologetically capitalist country in which the vast majority of workers are employed in the private sector, entrepreneurial success is widely celebrated and more than half of all households own corporate shares.
Progressives have apparently not noticed that we just came through an election in which voters responded to their cancel-culture, defund-the-police identity-politics malarkey by denying them the sweeping congressional victory they had been expecting.
Nor did they stop to consider that for 35 years, the president-elect they are trying to win over vigorously represented the state that serves as the corporate capital of the United States and one of its leading financial centers. Now that same president-elect will need business support to overcome the intransigence of Republicans in the House and Senate and get things done.
Nobody denies the serious ethical challenges posed by Washington’s “revolving door” culture or the corrosive influence of corporate money and lobbying on the political process. Nor should we forget the outright corruption of the Trump administration in appointing coal and petroleum industry lobbyists to oversee environmental regulation. And as someone who recently wrote a book on the topic, I’m on board with the idea that American capitalism lost its moral compass.
But it is a giant leap from those legitimate concerns to declaring that anyone who associates with a for-profit business is so morally compromised that they can’t be entrusted to protect the general welfare.
Is the country better off if anyone who worked at Caterpillar, Facebook or the Carlyle Group is barred from holding high office, no matter in what capacity they served or how long ago?
Are we to believe that all union officials and environmental lobbyists have the character to transition from advocating for special interests to advocating for the public interest, but not a lawyer who once represented Goldman Sachs or a PR executive brought in to provide crisis management advice to Tesla?
Do we really want no political appointee at the Treasury who has any experience in finance, or anyone at the Occupational Safety and Health Administration who ever ran a factory, or anyone regulating oil wells who ever actually drilled one?
Might it not be useful to have a successful venture capitalist at the Small Business Administration, or a successful hospital administrator overseeing medical facilities at Veterans Affairs, or an uber-techie from Microsoft or Google supervising cybersecurity?
And if trafficking with business is disqualifying, then logically shouldn’t the blacklist be enlarged to include anyone who has worked at a think tank or university that has received financial support from major corporations or hedge fund billionaires?
Obviously, every presidential appointee should be subject to a thorough vetting process that looks at the whole person and across an entire career. Some work done for some companies will inevitably be disqualifying. But tarring everyone in business with the same broad brush is so extreme and counterproductive that one suspects the real purpose of the blacklisting isn’t just to drain the swamp, but to ensure progressives the policy victories that they could not win at the ballot box.
My own worry about the Biden appointment process has less to do with how many business types or progressives may be in the mix. Rather, it is the degree to which the Clinton-Obama alumni association appears to have taken over the process, putting themselves and their former colleagues at the top of the lists for all the plum jobs.
Ours is a big country with lots of talented, experienced people in state and local government, at universities and nonprofits and — yes — even in business who would love to serve their country, if only they were asked. One reason so many heartland voters turn away from the Democratic Party is that they suspect it is controlled by an insular, self-serving political elite that doesn’t understand what their lives are like. Trotting out the same-old, same-old only reinforces that cynicism. To deliver on its promise of “diversity and inclusion,” the new administration needs to go beyond the usual criteria of race, gender and sexual orientation to include people most of us have never heard of from places we’ve never been.
The larger problem here is that American politics has become so nasty and government so dysfunctional that dwindling numbers of our best and brightest young people are choosing careers in public service. For four decades, the not-so-subtle message coming from Republicans has been that government’s civilian workers are inefficient and overpaid, many of them doing work that could be better done by the private sector, or not done at all. And given the incompetence of the Trump administration, and its paranoia about the “deep state,” it’s no wonder that young people with other options aren’t rushing to sign up for careers in the federal government.
A central challenge for a new Democratic administration will be to make public service cool, exciting and appreciated once again. The way to do that isn’t to blacklist everyone who ever worked for a big corporation or to limit recruitment to friends and former colleagues. There’s a lot of interesting and important work to be done to get the country out of the rut it is in, and to do it we will need fresh talent and fresh perspective from wherever we can get it.