Editor’s Note: Bradley Tusk is CEO of his own firm, Tusk Ventures, which consults with companies that work with government. He was campaign manager for Michael Bloomberg’s successful re-election bid as New York City mayor in 2009 and served as deputy governor of Illinois from 2003 to 2006. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.
The hit show "Hamilton" highlights the importance of standing up for your beliefs in politics, but too few of today's politicians do, says Bradley Tusk
In the musical, the lead character explains his decision to back a longtime rival: "Jefferson has beliefs. Burr has none."
In the fifth grade, back in 1983, I read a book about politics called “Advise and Consent.” It was a novel by Allen Drury about a Senate confirmation process of a nominee for secretary of state. It was gripping and wonderful, and I was hooked on politics from that day forward.
That fervor lasted until around five years ago, when I came to realize that the vast majority of politicians I knew and had worked with and for (with the very notable exception of Mike Bloomberg) held office solely because their egos demanded constant outside validation and endless attention. There was virtually no issue, no policy, no cause where they’d risk their career to advance something in which they believed.
Once I figured that out, the notion of spending my time helping elect or serve these people was a nonstarter. So I can only imagine how young people interested in politics must feel watching this year’s presidential campaigns.
There may be one antidote though: “Hamilton.”
My 9-year-old daughter and 7-year-old son are both obsessed with the hit Broadway show. They’ve each seen it, they listen to the soundtrack constantly, the older one is taking a shot at Ron Chernow’s 818-page biography of Alexander Hamilton that inspired the show, and we’re constantly talking about the decisions Hamilton made and what precipitated each of them.
The one that seems to resonate with them the most is Hamilton’s decision to support Thomas Jefferson over Aaron Burr in the election of 1800. Despite a career-long disagreement with Jefferson on virtually every issue, Hamilton ultimately gave Jefferson his support, summing up the decision as “Jefferson has beliefs. Burr has none.”
Is one scene in one Broadway show enough to convince a new generation that the point of politics – even the true glory of politics – is to believe in something enough to risk your career, even life, over it? I doubt it.
Even then, real life probably didn’t quite match the show’s idealism. By all accounts, Hamilton wasn’t afraid to fight for his beliefs at any cost. Jefferson’s body of work speaks for itself, but he was, in some ways, still a politician.
But one thing is clear: They believed in more than themselves and their ambitions. And they’d be horrified by the way the system they built has turned out.
So as we complain about the candidates on the ballot this year, rather than just shaking our heads, we should start thinking about how we change the norms that shape politics – and politicians – in the first place. For as long as we’re willing to elect people for whom winning (and keeping) office is mainly about blunting their insecurity rather than achieving a particular policy goal, we’ll keep being faced with awful choices and even worse outcomes.
But if we can start teaching today’s students that Hamilton’s underlying view that the only point of holding office is to achieve something tangible (and not just to get more followers on Twitter), then maybe we can start attracting candidates who care about more than solely fulfilling their own ambitions.
Maybe we can start attracting candidates who’d see voting for a difficult but important bill that costs them their seat is the highest validation of their career.
Maybe that’s too much to ask for. But the greatest public service I can think of during this election cycle would be to put “Hamilton” on network TV so that everyone can see it. And to teach American history around what people such as Hamilton, Jefferson, George Washington and James Madison believed in, rather than just teaching the basic facts around what they did.
And to instill in every student in every public school, charter school, independent school, yeshiva, Catholic school and everywhere else that our country can only succeed if we’re willing to ask truly tough questions of our candidates and hold them accountable for actual results rather than endless empty rhetoric.
So whether you’re Bloomberg, the Koch brothers, George Soros, Tom Steyer, Joe Ricketts, Paul Singer or any of the other billionaires who frequently invest big dollars into campaigns, maybe the best thing you can do this year is keep your money out of politics and invest it instead in educating today’s students that the principles that Alexander Hamilton lived by over 200 years ago are the same principles that can once again give us a government we can believe in and a nation we can be proud of.