Raising Expectations

This week’s national media news cycle looks to be dominated by discussion of the midterm election cycle here in the United States of America. There will be a lot of talk, some analysis, and few clear answers on what happens next. We know that any given election night holds the possibility of something extraordinary happening and yet as quickly as one election comes and disappears, we look ahead and focus on the next one. What I find unique about election night is that it is often the point in time which holds our highest expectations of what our new elected representatives might achieve in the ensuing term, but what I am wondering these days is whether or not our expectations are set too low.

Looking at the recently published 2006 National Leadership Index, published by the Center for Public Leadership at the JFK School of Government, Americans view their confidence level in Congressional Leaders as being lower than that of the following sectors: Military, Medical, Nonprofit & Charitable, Educational, Religious, Local Government, State Government, and Business respectively. The study goes on to demonstrate that Americans hold Congressional Leaders in higher esteem only with respect to the Executive Branch and the Press respectively. What does it say when the legislative branch has oversight, regulatory, and or appropriations authority over the sectors in which Americans put more confidence than they do Congress? While this may provide further evidence for arguments in support of reduced government size and interference, I see it more clearly as an indicator that we expect too little from our representatives, whereby they are justified in aspiring to reach peaks below their own potential. Thucydides, in his History of the Peloponnesian War, notes Pericles remarks in a funeral oratory that capture the higher expectations we should take a cue from:

“It is true that we are called a democracy, for the administration is in the hands of the many and not of the few. But while there exists equal justice to all and alike in their private disputes, the claim of excellence is also recognized; and when a citizen is in any way distinguished, he is preferred to the public service, not as a matter of privilege, but as the reward of merit.For where the rewards of virtue are greatest, there the noblest citizens are enlisted in the service of the state.”

So then I say to you, where are, “the rewards of virtue the greatest” in our society? This is a question that I hope we can find an answer for, as there is an unsteadiness in my own mind when I consider the answer to this question. What I am more steady about in my thinking is that this Tuesday we have an opportunity at the ballot to signal to our representatives in public service that we have higher expectations for the way in which they discharge the duties of the offices to which we call them and we will have little tolerance for reasonable doubt from our representatives about how high we set our expectations for them. They should make no mistake we desire men and women in the public service who are worthy of our trust and the caretaking of our democracy.