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Dan Glickman served as the 26th United States Secretary of Agriculture, a post he held from 1995 until 2001. Previously he was a Democratic representative for Kansas in Congress for[…]

Politicians are too scared of getting decapitated.

Question: Is the American political system broken?

Dan Glickman: You know I spent a lot of time in politics. I was an 18-year member of Congress. And I was in the Clinton Administration for a while. And then I ran a program at Harvard at the Institute of Politics at the Kennedy School. My biggest concern is the lack of vitality in the American political system. Both the level of civil engagement on the part of the citizens is low, and the way our politicians deal with the citizens is also very low. And the rule of money in this process as being the dominant factor as opposed to issues. I'm reminded there was an architect named Daniel Burnham who was very famous in Chicago. If you ever read the book"The Devil in the White City". And he built the Tribune Building and the Wrigley Building, and did a lot of the train stations around the country. But he once said, "Make no little plans, for they do not have the power to stir men's souls." And it strikes me today that our politics is the politics of little plans. No big plans, because the political system doesn't encourage anybody to go down the road of making big plans. They'll get their heads chopped off. They also will be too frenetically engaged in the money chase as well. And I'm not demeaning people in the world of politics. There are a lot of good people there, and this is not a patrician issue. But the truth of the matter is our system is only as good as . . . Our system's fragile. There's nothing to say the American political system will last forever. We just . . . We don't give it the attention, and it doesn't have the excellence that it once did. I think that's the biggest problem facing America.

Question: Can anyone fix it?

Dan Glickman: Well you know, I don’t want to talk in the current political system of who’s running for president or individual political leaders. I think it’s just that politics tends not to be the business that talented, innovative people go into. Money tends to be the thing that draws people once they get out of school as opposed to public service. And the one thing . . . And there’s nothing wrong with making money. I’m glad I make a nice salary right now, and I was in public service for a long time; but I do think we have not given enough attention to how and why we can get more people – talented, competent, young, people – to look in the political or the public service world rather than being automatically drawn to the world of money.

I think we need politicians who are not afraid to speak out and risk a little bit of personal security in their positions. I think that would help a bit. I think that this is much more being done at the state level, by the way, and the local level than at the national level. There are actually some very positive trends at local and state levels. Many leading governors of both political parties are vital in trying to develop a dialogue in their own states. And there are a lot of laboratory experiments on medicine, and health care, and education in the states that are not existing at the federal level. But we can’t ignore the federal levels because that’s America’s link to the rest of the world. We can’t have 50 state foreign policies. So we’ve gotta figure out a way to get our national governments to be more resilient than it is right now.

Recorded on: 7/6/07