One of the most ignorant and inescapable clichés of American political discourse is the pervasive idea that what the country most needs is a businessman in the White House. A popular pitch of the Mitt Romney for President campaign in 2012 was that his entrepreneurial and investment accomplishment would transfer easily into excellence at the executive branch of the United States government. Chief executives are largely interchangeable, according to the vulgar bromide, and an increasingly indebted American leadership could use the cold efficiency and accountability of the market. Romney, a former governor of Massachusetts, now resembles Abraham Lincoln in comparison to Donald Trump, who has taken the CEO-in-the-White-House monstrosity and magnified it to hideous proportions.
It is not merely members of the uncultured and clipped right wing who utter the idea, typically as if they believe they have just invented it, that America is a business, and therefore should “be run like one,” but many average, apathetic Americans, without much of a political vocabulary, also believe it. Bill Gates, in 2013, became a high-profile advocate of the Republic-as-business interpretation.
Considering that novel and unmarketable subjects like civics and history are no longer taught much in the job training centers hilariously known as “schools,” it should not surprise anyone that a large percentage of Americans betray a disciplined obliviousness to the bare basics and fundamentals of good governance, public policy and public administration. The Annenberg Public Policy Center reports that only 36 percent of American survey respondents could correctly identify all three branches of government. Such lack of elementary knowledge renders any appreciation for the complexities of triumvirate government nearly extinct, and in its place, copulates many creatures who adopt and apply an ideology they can understand: Making money good; not making money bad.
While the necessity of economic growth and profit enhancement is undeniable, it is not something that can function as a guiding principle for public affairs in a healthy republic. The word “public” alone, as opposed to the “private” in private sector, delineates a different set of priorities and duties for the public official from the private executive. Ideally, the government should establish symbiosis with business so as to ensure economic growth, widespread opportunity for mobility, and a robust job market. As too many victims of cold capitalist calculation can attest – whether they just received a denial from their health insurance company or inhale smog on their neighborhood streets – private profit and public service often collide, with fatal consequences. The government is then responsible for regulation and arbitration. What is more important – the maximization of profit or the health, safety and general welfare of constituents?
The general welfare is consistently connected to education and healthcare, and not even the most inventive entrepreneur has discovered a winning business formula for creating private profit, while excellently providing the public service of school for poor children whose families cannot afford tuition, or giving assistance and aid to unemployable people with physical or intellectual disabilities.
It is not that the demonstration of a business acumen should disqualify a candidate for public office, but that the application of the acumen alone will result in failure, pain and suffering for countless citizens.
Gov. Bruce Rauner of Illinois boasted about his business background before winning entry into the State Mansion, and his approach to closing the gaps in the state budget is to cut social services with enthusiasm and abandon not visible since the premiere of "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre." Disabled children, autistic teenagers and already beleaguered county hospitals are victims of the mentality that prioritizes reduction of overhead above all else. Perhaps the harsh elimination of expenditures is necessary for a struggling company, but when those expenditures at the state level include essential services and resources for a family whose child has severe cerebral palsy, the enforcement of a business-informed judgment will create misery.
Running a large state is complicated, but it is nothing compared to running an entire country. Even a cursory look at American history reveals that there is no precedent to justify the belief that a businessman in the White House will solve any of the nation’s problems. The greatest presidential accomplishments have little or nothing to do with commercial activity or expertise.
When the nation’s first presidents effectively established the United States as a livable country with a strong system of governance, they were not committed to the bottom line. When Abraham Lincoln oversaw the Civil War, envisioned the poetic and pragmatic primacy of Union, and emancipated the slaves, he was devoted to work vastly different than widening the profit margin of a company. Franklin Roosevelt’s simultaneous management of the Great Depression and World War II required some awareness of how to stimulate economic activity, but it also demanded a skill set he could not have cultivated in any boardroom. While there is much brutality in American history, its beauty is the expansion and enlargement of liberty and opportunity for all people – African-Americans, immigrants, gays and women. Business was not the usher for freedom into the culture in those legal, social and political struggles, as any image of a “Whites Only” sign in the window of a diner or hotel would illustrate.
In moments of trauma and terror – such as the Cuban Missile Crisis or on September 11, 2001 – it is not commerce, or financial brilliance, that brings the mournful, frightened and threatened the peace and comfort they need.
It is undeniable that any good governor or great president should possess a comprehension of economics that will empower her to strengthen local markets, and help, rather than hinder the honest, legitimate and ethical businessperson to create tax revenue, employment opportunities, and commercial vitality, especially in death-rattling cities like Youngstown, Ohio, and Gary, Indiana, that desperately need all of it.
It is dangerous and naïve, however, to reduce politics and public policy to the relatively straightforward calculus of commerce. To believe that there is an easy transference of competence in business management to public administration reveals historical ignorance on a profound and poisonous scale.
The always popular, but as of yet unsuccessful demand for a businessman in the White House is the symptom of a much larger disease in America. The nation’s most powerful institutions and popular culture have indoctrinated much of the public to narrow the focus of life down to the monetary and materially measurable. Space for the survival of non-market pleasures and values continues to erode, causing more and more Americans to embrace careerism in private life, and elevate the corporate attitude in public life. Economic concerns now overwhelm all others, and as too many Americans direct their own lives with the myopia of commerce and consumption, they also endorse an equally small-minded and shortsighted vision for the common good.
It might turn out that the “common good” never stood much of a chance. It just isn’t marketable. Someone should come up with a slogan for selling civic engagement, communal investment and political stewardship of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness to a disinterested public. Too bad “Make American Great Again” is already taken.