Last week, I argued that African-American elected officials have had effective control of St. Louis city government for the last 24 years and, in light of that fact, there's no credible explanation for the failure of city government to address the issues that impact the African-American community.
This is because consistently conflate two related concepts as being synonymous with one another. We often use “politician” and “elected official” interchangeably, but they have quite different meanings in political reality.
A politician is someone who does politics. Webster defines “politics” as the activities, actions, and policies that are used to gain and hold power in a government or to influence a government. An elected official is someone who is an official by virtue of an election, period. There’s no verb form for “elected official,” therefore there's no action inherent to that status. What politicians and elected officials have in common is they work in government, which is why the public regularly confuses one with the other.
The only qualifications for holding just about any public office (including president of the United States) is age, citizenship and residency. If fact, in America anyone can get elected to any office without possessing intelligence, integrity or competence. You don't believe me? I just described the village idiot of New York City who is now president.
Politicians are to government what an executive chef is to a restaurant. Just as the executive chef creates the menu that defines vision and dining options of the restaurant, politicians create the vision and define the policy options of government. As the executive chef oversees the operation of the kitchen to turn the menu into a meal, politicians oversee the operation of government to turn policy options into public practice.
There's another important way the restaurant and government are similar. People select a restaurant but they don't create the menu, they don't tell the restaurant what to cook or how to cook it. You select a restaurant based upon the menu and the chef’s ability to execute that menu to your satisfaction.
Let's extend that concept to government. America is a democratic republic, not a direct democracy. You elect the people responsible for the government, but you delegate the actual running of the government to those you elect. Their job becomes to create policies you can support (the menu) and then turn those policies into practice (cooking the meal) to your satisfaction. You demonstrate your approval of the executive chef by continuing to return to the restaurant; you validate the stewardship of the politician by returning them to office.
Just because you know how to cook doesn't mean you know how to run a restaurant. A lot of people confuse their ability to cook a great meal (everyone tells them they should open a restaurant) with the skills necessary to successfully run a restaurant (restaurants have among the highest business failure rates). To be an executive chef requires years of formal training and even more years of experience honing your skills under the tutelage of experienced masters before you can be trusted with the responsibility of a restaurant.
Politics is much the same. Just because you get elected to public office does not mean you know how to run a government. There is no magic that happens when you get elected that transforms you into a politician. Becoming a politician means a lifetime commitment to developing the understanding and skills required to govern. Like all real professionals, you never stop working on your game because you know you always need to get better.
It's obvious that over the last 24 years we've had plenty of African Americans who know how to cook; there's no shortage of African-American elected officials. It's equally clear that we've produced an insufficient number of African-American executive chefs, because if government is like a restaurant, we're still waiting on a menu and a meal.
Second in a series. Next week: Are African-American politicians enough?
Mike Jones, who has held senior policy positions in St. Louis city and county government, serves on the St. Louis American editorial board and the State Board of Education.