"Statesmanship: A Most Worthy Cause"

(This essay originally appeared in the Summer 2002 issue of IMPACT!, the newsletter of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy.)

A busy political season is heating up. Candidates are courting voters, but recent trends suggest that in the end, more than half of those eligible to vote will fail to do so. Many people don't like the choices they're offered, while others just don't care one way or another. But almost all would agree that they'd more likely get involved if more of the men and women seeking office possessed the qualities that define "statesmanship."

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Statesmen are a cut above politicians. The latter are run-of-the-mill, nothing-specials who seek office for the thrill of it, for the power and notoriety it brings. Some politicians are better than others but it takes something more to rise above mere politics, the meatgrinder of principles. The best politician knows how to deftly manipulate the levers of power for personal advantage, but the statesman's allegiance is to loftier objectives.

What qualities define a statesman? He (or she) doesn't seek public office for personal gain or because it's the only job he knows how to do. In fact, like the legendary Cincinnatus of ancient Rome or George Washington in our own early history, the statesman takes time out from a life of accomplishment to serve the general welfare. He stands for a principled vision, not for what he thinks you'll fall for. He is well-informed about the vicissitudes of human nature, the lessons of history, the role of ideas, and the economics of the marketplace. He is a truth-seeker, which means he is more likely to do what's right than what may be politically popular at the moment. You know where he stands because he says what he means and means what he says. He elevates public discussion because he knows what he's talking about. He does not engage in class warfare or in other divisive or partisan tactics that pull people apart. He does not cynically buy votes with the money his taxes take from others. He may even judge his success in office as much by how many laws he repealed as by how many he passed.

So how do we breed more statesmen and fewer politicians? We can raise the standards we as voters require of our candidates. And we can support the educational efforts of groups like the Mackinac Center for Public Policy — efforts such as our "Statesmanship Initiative" that, when fully funded, will train candidates and officeholders in what good government is all about.

President Ronald Reagan once said, "We are a nation that has a government, not the other way around." If we want to keep it that way, we had best devote more time and resources to encouraging statesmanship. Ultimately, we get the government that we deserve.