Last Month, temperatures in Texas plunged well below freezing leading to a plethora of problems. The storm resulted in power outages and burst pipes across the state which was made worse with Texas' unique situation of having a power grid separated from the rest of the country. This meant that millions were left without electricity for days and clean drinking water for weeks. Although the total extent of the damage is still being investigated, officials say the storm resulted in at least 110 Texans losing their life.
While the country came together to help Texans during the pandemonium, one prominent politician seemed to be MIA. It would later be known that Senator Ted Cruz had decided to skip Texas and was heading to Cancun, Mexico with his family. Almost immediately, Cruz was criticized from both sides of the aisle for seemingly leaving his 29 million constituents in the dark. Cruz’s actions shed light on an important fundamental question which ought to be addressed if we hope to avoid another scenario like this; how should elected officials see their job? It’s a strange question, but the way our representatives perceive their roles has a profound impact on how our democracy operates.
There are two ways to approach a position where you must represent the needs of others. We can either see it as a great privilege or an enormous burden. Imagine yourself being elected as one of Virginia’s senators, representing eight and a half million Virginians in the US Senate, which one of these would you feel? The former submits that the primary purpose of the office is for the individual. Perceiving such a role as a privilege suggests that the one to gain the most from the position is the individual holding that office. On the other hand, the latter suggests that the central benefactors are those being represented. Seeing your role as a burden acknowledges a representative as being a mere agent for the people. We ought to elect those that feel their role as a representative as being a burden on them and if we intend to be effective agents of change ourselves we must understand this notion and apply it in our own life.
The University of Virginia prides itself on creating leaders, however, in order to be effective in creating the change that we so often champion we must learn to, and be willing to, sacrifice our own personal comfort for that of others. This also means that we ought to judge our own success as leaders from how well the weakest among us is doing not the strongest. Remember, privilege as a leader is using your power to address your own needs, it’s exactly what Senator Cruz exemplified last month and what so many politicians succumb to. A burden is recognizing your position as a leader and identifying how you will use your own resources to help others over yourself.
In stark contrast to Senator Cruz’s actions I’m reminded of a young Cory Booker. Raised in the suburb of New Jersey and attending Stanford, Oxford and Yale, Booker had lived a comfortable life. Once he was elected as a councilman for the city of Newark, NJ, however, he decided to give that up. He saw his job as a burden, one that required him to see how the poorest in his community lived. As a councilman and later as the mayor, Booker lived at Brick Towers, a poor housing project in the inner-city. By choice he experienced the cold winters when the heat wouldn’t work and the dangerous streets when crime ramped up, just like everyone else in his community. Although much more can be said about Booker today, his actions at the time remind us of how leaders ought to perceive their role and how the burden of public service should impact our personal life.
In order for democracy to work properly we must recognize that leadership is not a privilege. Instead we must see it as a burden, one that forces us to see the world in the eyes of the most vulnerable. UVA just ended its own campaign season electing new leaders to Student Council, the Honor Committee, and the University Judiciary Committee. I urge those that have been elected to reflect on the burden that now rests on their shoulders. As big or small as the election may be, our new leaders ought to remember that their own needs don’t come first, second, or third, but rather after the needs of all those they represent. Furthermore, I ask students to continuously scrutinize and hold our new leaders accountable in order to ensure they serve for the betterment of our University.