This article originally appeared in, and was written for, the Council of State Governments newsletter to North American legislators by Andrew Younger in 2015.
In 1956 Adlai Stevenson told the Democratic National Convention “The idea that you can merchandise candidates for high office like breakfast cereal – that you can gather votes like box tops – is… the ultimate indignity to the democratic process.” Regardless of political party, legislators and their staff are often confronted with finding the line between engaging the public in a discussion on issues and the demands of the advertising age for politicians to be, as Stevenson warned, marketed like breakfast cereal.
Unfortunately as public servants, we contribute to voter disillusionment by putting more attention on ideology and marketing rather than on debate over the issues at hand.
Most people on the front lines of government have witnessed increasing public disillusionment with government and public service. People increasingly say they feel disconnected from government and find it less relevant to them. As public servants, whether legislators or staff, it’s our responsibility to work together to change how citizens view those in public service, and focus the public debate on policy and ideas, rather than ideology.
Public disengagement is a real problem that translates into lower voter engagement at elections and less citizen interest in the discussion of decisions that impact people’s lives. It’s directly tied to the fact a growing number of people no longer have faith that politicians and civil servants are there to help make our communities stronger and their lives better.
Gallup’s 2011 survey found the public feels among the most trustworthy and honest occupations are pharmacists, doctors, high school teachers, police officers and clergy. Importantly, they are occupations where people directly identify how their lives are positively impacted by people in those careers.
Members of Congress received the lowest score ever given. Similar surveys in Canada, in other countries, and of state and provincial legislators often suggest similar results. A major difference between the top and bottom of the list is connection. It’s difficult for members of the public to directly attribute policies that allow a nurse to do her job, to the political decisions that enacted the policy. So the public focuses on the negativity in government. As people become disengaged, that problem worsens.
Dr. Sarah Birch at the United Kingdom’s Essex University’s Centre for the Study of Integrity found 58 percent of residents felt the honesty and integrity of politicians in that country was low or very low. Only 7 percent rated it highly. Dr. Birch remarked that how people feel about those in public life impacts on our ability to engage citizens and affect change. She said “Governments become less effective if people think they’re all crooks.”
Tellingly, Dr. Birch identified the reason for the problem when she said “[People are] concerned about how politicians use their words. They want politicians to keep their campaign promises and not spin.”
This suggests that increased partisanship, gamesmanship, and spin damages the credibility of everyone in public life. John Quinton once ridiculed politicians saying “Politicians are people who, when they see the light at the end of the tunnel, go out and buy some more tunnel”. The political environment has developed to encourage people to say “the other guy is like that, but I’m different”. That message simply doesn’t work.
The perception of public life is entirely in our hands as participants in the political process and as servants of the public. It’s our responsibility, and our responsibility alone, to demonstrate by our actions there is value in public service.
Ideologically and politically there are different ideas on the role of government and how to solve the problems our states and provinces face. That’s why we have a democratic political process. Government at all levels fail if the public does not feel it is a full partner in decision making, in representation, in the future.