Politics vs. Public Service

For someone who loves state and local government, it truly always is an election year (at least in most places) because between off-year local elections, state house or lower-level executive offices that coincide with congressional midterm elections, and then of course presidential elections, if we aren't actually in the midst of an election cycle, we are almost about to be.

If you enjoy Political Science research (and who doesn't?!), one of the classics in the institutions side of the cannon is Congress: The Electoral Connection (1974) by David Mayhew who argued that many members of Congress behave in ways that are motivated by reelection. He refrained from explicitly saying the *all* MCs do is constantly run for reelection, but the main takeaway from his research is that so much of what they do at least indirectly fuels their job security necessitated by elections.

To be fair, members of the House serve two year terms and, in the modern era, when presidential campaigns begin four years before the election almost exactly when the winner of the previous election is declared, two years is hardly enough to accomplish much in office AND ensure that you will get to stay to (hopefully) accomplish more in subsequent terms. While none of this is new, it has undoubtedly gotten worse. If the term "cannon" did not clue you in, Mayhew's seminal work is over 40 years old, yet the arguments and assessments are still incredibly relevant.

Serving in public office invariably requires two objectives: becoming elected and promoting public good. Ideally, these two concepts should be closely intertwined, so that the politics (becoming elected) and the public service (promoting public good) are not distinct or disparate objectives but mutually reinforcing goals. The system of elections now, with expensive campaigns, unlimited super PAC funding, embarrassingly low voter turnout, severe partisan polarization, and high-stakes interest group involvement all seem to pull the political elements away from the public service core, making them two very different functions. I am sure there are many who could effectively counter argue that this has always been the case or that this does not even matter, but the growing wedge between politics and public service is particularly troublesome for the health of our democracy when one considers that the former is inextricably required in order to attain the latter. Want to help your community through public office but dislike the "dirty" politics and patronage required to even get to that position? Boo, sorry, game over, you lose. (Or even more accurately, you likely never start.) :-/

The difference between politics and public service incorporates a gendered bent, too, which became clearer to me as I discussed the differences and similarities of the concepts with my upper-level students. In conjunction with reading It Still Takes a Candidate: Why Women Don't Run for Public Office (2010) from Jennifer Lawless and Richard Fox (a fantastic read that I highly recommend), we watched the documentary Miss Representation (2011). The women in the Lawless and Fox study constantly undervalued their qualifications, compared to the men, and they exhibited an interest in helping their communities but were more wary of the politics. A young girl in the documentary repeatedly shared her enthusiasm for "public service" and explained to her mother that she wanted to be in elected office to serve the people.

The difference between how the women emphasized public service as more preferable and worth their time relative to politics really struck me. One could almost use the terms synonymously, give or take some innate differences irreconcilable between the two, and they would refer to the work of a state legislator, a council member, or a school board superintendent. It struck me how the actual language we use and the connotations associated with those terms really do get at an important difference in government today. Are we too focused on politics, so much so that we completely ignore public service, at least to the extent to which it does not reinforce the political function? Does the divide matter, or are the political and public services functions really the same but just viewed from two different angles (perhaps a difference in pragmatism vs. idealism, respectively)? Arguably most importantly, how does this impact the kind of government and democracy that we serve and serves us?

As much as it pains me to admit this as a campaign nut, the increasing focus on personality and power in debates, campaign ads and literature, and even just the general discourse about the election ultimately detracts from time spent discussing policy, objectively evaluating potential options, and exploring the likelihood of corresponding outcomes. We love the dirt, the drama of politics and it shows in the focus of our campaigns. But are we missing the integral piece of service that serves as an integral component of elected office? Where did it go and how can we get it back? For the sake of American democracy and the health of our community, reemphasizing the value of public service is imperative to improving our government for generations to come.

#politics #publicservice #politicalbehavior #elections #women #change #bettergovt

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© 2016 by "PositivelyPolitics" and L. M. Albright.