where are my Leslie Knopes
April 23, 2015 10:33 AM   Subscribe

So there's a lot of research that demonstrates the myriad ways that our political system incentivizes politicians to be corrupt, to assent to constituent whims even if it leads to the greater detriment of a system, to follow the money and so on. Are there any modernish examples where this was not the case?

Specifically, where are our elected officials who acted with foresight, according to their ideals, and didn't let the money lead them to disingenuous conclusions?

Looking especially for career politicians who were able to accomplish this at any level of government.
posted by runt to Law & Government (11 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Harold Washington (Former mayor of Chicago), maybe?
posted by discopolo at 10:37 AM on April 23, 2015

Do you want research showing where and how the system can work positively or examples of noncorrupt politicians?
posted by Wretch729 at 10:52 AM on April 23, 2015

Best answer: Paul Martin as the Canadian finance minister is widely considered to have saved Canada from financial ruin during the 2008 world financial crisis because he previously resisted the financial sector's pressure for deregulation and for rejecting the mega-mergers of Bank of Montreal with Royal Bank and TD with CIBC. Just imagine an American politician rejecting mergers from the top 4 banks in America! (you have to imagine because these kinds of mergers are almost never rejected by the US government).

That this happened with the Liberal Party during Chretian's reign which was then hit with small potatoes money scandal after money scandal makes it an even more impressive a feat that Martin resisted the most hugely powerful and wealthy interests in Canada and the United States.

He wasn't a brilliant politician but he was a great technocrat and it turns out that was more important at that moment in time. He doesn't get nearly the recognition he deserves.
posted by srboisvert at 10:55 AM on April 23, 2015 [6 favorites]

Response by poster: Wretch729: that could work too. I'm just trying to figure out if there are role models in politics that would be evidence against taking a heavily cynical view
posted by runt at 11:00 AM on April 23, 2015

For most of the show Leslie Knope was a government employee and not a politician, and that difference matters a whole lot. I know many "Leslies" in my government office, people who love what they do and believe in it passionately. But you couldn't pay any of us to run for office.
posted by backwards compatible at 11:08 AM on April 23, 2015 [7 favorites]

Gough Whitlam was an existence proof that "principled" and "politician" are not mutually exclusive categories.
posted by flabdablet at 11:46 AM on April 23, 2015 [1 favorite]

How far back/far afield are you looking? Nye Bevan, who founded the UK's National Health Service in 1946-48, springs to mind.
posted by penguin pie at 12:00 PM on April 23, 2015

Paul Wellstone
Teddy Roosevelt (especially given his split from the Republicans to found the Progressive Party in 1912)
Bella Abzug
Daniel Inouye

Oh and maybe Fiorello LaGuardia.

There really are lots, these are just a few off the top of my head.
posted by veery at 12:05 PM on April 23, 2015 [1 favorite]

Other, more recent names from the UK Left that occur to me include Tony Benn, Dennis Skinner and Jeremy Corbyn, though the latter two have remained long-term back benchers rather than entering government.
posted by penguin pie at 12:07 PM on April 23, 2015

Best answer: Hmm, okay. I'm worried this is going to get too chatfilter-y for AskMe but I'll give it a shot. First I'm going to artificially limit myself to the last 15 years because presumably you want a modern example, not nostalgia for the glory days of yore. I'm also going to assume by "our" that you mean the United States.

First, I'm going to take a very high-level view and point out that despite what the constant parade of government dysfunction on the news would have you think the US government and the federal bureaucracy it controls generally, from day to day, do get the job done reasonably well. The US is tied for 17th least corrupt in the latest rankings from Transparency International, which puts it ahead of most of the world, including France, Spain, and over 150 other places. You can expect to get your social security checks on time, you can expect to be able to drive freely across the country on a system of publicly financed and maintained highways, you can listen to the radio and talk on your cell phone while you drive those highways because the FCC makes sure companies can't try to jam each other's broadcasts, you can be saved by publicly funded fire and rescue when you crash because you were talking on that cellphone (oh and also because of regulation that requires carriers to make sure it's easy to call 911 on any cell phone), national parks open every day to accept visitors, the VA system serves over 8 million patients with a high standard of healthcare, the military is (however misused) capable and professionally run, you don't have to bribe an official to travel from state to state or to get your tax refund, and thanks in part to the FDA, EPA, and related regulatory agencies you can be reasonably sure your water and food is safe the vast majority of the time. Most of the time everything works moderately well. What we have we take for granted, but it's better in many ways than what you can expect in much of the rest of the world and certainly better than what existed historically in most places for most people.

Finding some more specific examples is tricky because personal standards of morality and probity might vary subjectively and politics is by necessity the art of the possible and always entails compromise.

One I'd start with is Federal Reserve Vice Chairman Roger W. Ferguson, Jr. and the Fed's handling of the 9/11 attack, as reported last fall on DailyKos and discussed here on Metafilter. The Fed had good disaster preparedness training in place and was able to prevent a possible economic collapse. (The response to the 2008 financial crisis is a much more mixed record, but a compelling argument can be made the the institutions put in place after the Great Depression and WWII did work, at least well enough to prevent a similarly catastrophic collapse. See, for example, Daniel Drezner's book The System Worked.)

Picking members of congress is hard because I'm reluctant to highlight partisan achievements over general good government, but I'll go ahead and cite Jim McGovern as an example of a basically decent and hardworking politician. He's represented Massachusetts' since 1997. One of his pet issues is hunger, and he's worked hard to get more funding for food assistance. He's also been a human rights advocate. He voted against the Iraq war. He's brought a lot of money back to Massachusetts. He has accepted campaign contributions from corporate donors but since it's impossible to be elected to political office without doing that I don't count it against him, and there haven't been any scandals involving him I'm aware of.

I go through this not to hold him up as some beacon of purity but to note that many if not most members of congress are hardworking and do want to serve their district. The old joke is that everyone loves their rep but hates Congress. So maybe a good piece of advice is to get to know your local representatives and learn about their positions. You might find someone you can respect close to home.
posted by Wretch729 at 12:10 PM on April 23, 2015 [10 favorites]

So maybe a good piece of advice is to get to know your local representatives and learn about their positions. You might find someone you can respect close to home.

Seconding this. You've got two potential upsides here: you find that you're really happy with the people representing you in municipal/county/state offices, or you find out that you're not -- and that you might be able to work to change that with a reasonable hope of success. I'm happy with the work my state representative and senator are doing, and when I'm not, I'm fairly certain that they'll at least listen when I tell them about it.

I should note that term limits in many places have made it more difficult to be a career politician, at least in the same office. Find out what your elected officials can actually do -- I was surprised to learn that my state's representatives are only permitted to introduce five bills per session, so they've got to prioritize and work together to get things done.

tl;dr: Getting involved and paying attention on a sub-national level might help you avoid feeling unpleasantly cynical.
posted by asperity at 12:54 PM on April 23, 2015

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