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Politics from the Politicians' Perspective

David Mathews

Excerpted with permission from Politics for People, ch. 3-5. Copyright © 1994 by David Mathews and the Charles F. Kettering Foundation.


The Way Things Were Supposed to Be
We, the People; They, the Government
When Officials Need the Public
Notes and Bibliography


The Way Things Were Supposed to Be
We, the People; They, the Government

We must look beyond mere mechanical refinements of the legislative process or of the executive operation. What we need to understand more clearly is the relationship of people in a representative democracy to its government. The "citizenship gap"—that dead-air space, so to speak, that vacuum—between the people and their government . . . is a greater threat to our government and our social structure than any external threat by far.

-Hubert H. Humphrey

Chapter 3: The Way Things Were Supposed to Be

Given Americans' sense of civic duty and national pride, how could they have become so disengaged from a political system that is supposedly "of the people, by the people, for the people"? Why hasn't the system always been responsive to citizens? As one citizen wondered aloud, "Why does there have to be such a struggle for us to have a meaningfill voice in a democratic country?"

We know that people feel pushed out of the system by a professional political class of lobbyists, politicians, and the media. How could these professional politicians have amassed such power? The answer is that our political system functions the way it does, in part, because it was designed that way. When citizens express their anger at representatives who shield themselves from popular opinion, and at interest groups who turn politics into a contest over who gets what, they are reacting against established norms about how politics must work.

There is no doubt that the country values democracy. Yet, we have to remember that the government was constructed to guard against what were thought to be the weaknesses of popular democracy. The current anger has its roots in the relatively weak role given citizens in the design of republican government. So more is at issue than the character or competence of this generation of political professionals—those whom people like to blame for pushing them out of the system. Long before modern interest groups were formed, before there were sound bites and big government, some Americans worried that the political system was evolving into one that would lose touch with the average citizen and be easily corrupted by money. These Anti-federalists, so called because of their concerns about central government, feared we were creating a scheme for governing the country in which "the bulk of the people can have nothing to say to [the government]." [1] For these early patriots, the victory in the American Revolution meant an opportunity to create a political system in which self-reliant citizens managed their own affairs—not another empire where those who ruled felt little connection with the people. Such empires, it was believed, would always end in corruption, greed, and lust for power. [2] If the Anti-federalists in the eighteenth century could hear citizens two hundred years later, they might say, "We told you so!"

Our government was designed to be run by representatives. Even now, the established view is that it just wouldn't do if every citizen were directly involved in politics. The fear is that the cacophony of competing voices would be too great; we would never get anything done. So traditional wisdom says, Work through interest groups and elected representatives; allow competition to settle differences.

The Blueprints for the United States

James Madison explained why our government operates as it does in The Federalist Papers, specifically in essays 10 and 51. Madison's underlying assumption was that politics brings out the worst in people—their selfishness. ("If men were angels, no government would be necessary.") [3] As Madison saw it, people would always try to use politics to further their particular interests. They would inevitably form groups or factions to secure special advantages for themselves, even if it were to the detriment of the public's interests as a whole. There would always be factions whose interests would be adverse to the "permanent and aggregate interests of the community." [4] Madison's genius, it is said, was in devising a system that uses this self-interest to control self-interests. [5] He believed that factions could not be eliminated because they were rooted in the self-interests of human beings. The only way to deal with interest groups, he reasoned, was to have so many that no one could dominate all the others. Any faction with particular interests would, in a large republic filled with many factions, be unlikely to take over because others (with opposing interests) would not allow that to happen. The agricultural faction, for example, would not be able to overpower the industrial faction. The more factions the better, so no one could get a permanent majority. The result was intended to be a good government—good in the sense that it would allow citizens the freedom to pursue their own self-interests.

The virtue of governing through interest group competition was not only that it would protect against tyranny; the competition was also seen as serving the common interest. Even if interest groups were concerned only with what benefited them, their competition would ultimately result in the government doing what was best for the country.

The notion that competition is inherently beneficial, that the "best tend to win out," came from the economic theories of Adam Smith, who developed the theory of capitalism in England at the same time that Madison developed the theory of representative government. Smith wrote that an "invisible hand" produces a superior society out of the endeavors of unfettered individual enterprise. Even if the individual parties are self-interested, the common good would be served. "Every individual . . . neither intends to promote the public interest, nor knows how much he is promoting it. . . . He intends only his own gain, and he is in this, as in many other cases, led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention. . . . By pursuing his own interest he frequently promotes that of the society more effectually than when he really intends to promote it." [6]

Smith's economic theory—or what was understood to be his theory—had a profound effect on the development of democratic theory. Ideas about the efficacy of self-interested competition were applied to political as well as economic behavior. Political competition was considered to be much like commercial competition. And democracy was redefined as a marketplace for free political competition. Citizens were understood to be consumers whose role was to buy, or not to buy, interest groups were selling.

Much of today's understanding of how politics works is based on this market model. Joseph Schumpeter, a modern economist turned democratic theorist, believed democracy could be effeceive only if it were understood as an "institutional arrangement. . . in which individuals acquire the power to decide by means of a competitive struggle for the people's vote." [7] This kind of democracy is like intense economic competition made political. There need be few, if any, common ideals and values—only the beneficial force of political competition, the struggle for advantage. Political competition will cause the public good to be served. The best "products" (candidates and policies) will win out.

Consequently, the conventional wisdom now is that people must join interest groups if they want to participate in politics, because interest groups are the major players in the political market. By aligning with a cause, region, institution, economic interest, or profession, we can compete for our objectives through the media, through lobbying, and through the ballot box. This is perfectly democratic, because anyone can supposedly join as many groups as he or she wants. And the elusive public interests can be defined by political contests. What could be more fair?

The Case for Guardians of Democracy

The theory of representative government also made provision for leaders—elected officials who would be further safeguards against rule by the masses, officials who would put the public interest ahead of partisan interests. Although leaders could, of course, be captured by special interests, the hope was that virtuous representatives would act as trustees or guardians of what was best for all. The idea was to elect these exceptional people to positions of leadership and to rely on the best citizens to see that the "right" people were put into office and the "right" policies enacted.

Now the established view is that, at most, a very small percentage of the population, perhaps as little as 5 percent, takes the responsibility of citizenship seriously. This elite core of citizens and the people they put into office act as everyone's guardians. Those who are serious and active are opinion leaders, and they control what the masses think and do. [8] Everyone else is just along for the ride, and there is no need to pay much attention to them except to be sure that their needs are met.

Today's arguments for guardians and against self-government are familiar. One is that self-government only works in small communities like the small city-states where it originated. America is too large to be a democracy. Another more recent claim is that our technological society is too complex for average citizens to direct. The most damning of all arguments is that Americans lack the moral character to be citizens. We are said to have lost respect for the civic values that citizens must have. We have even lost our capacity for civility. Finally, some scholars insist that the very idea of democracy is hopelessly flawed. Its principles are contrary to human nature and the nature of politics. [9] All of this leads to one conclusion: America needs guardians of the true public interest.

Those who have volunteered to serve as our guardians are often committed to a particular vision of America. They question popular rule, not because it does not lead to answers, but because it might lead to "the wrong answer." They believe guardians are needed to save America from itself. The public seems unpredictable and dangerous. So the American way of life cannot be assured by popular democracy. From this point of view, public talk is time-wasting babble—or worse. Widespread public discussion might confirm the public's deepest fears about the country's enemies and escalate conflict. So a degree of citizen indifference is essential. The public needs to be somewhat passive; if everyone were interested in everything, the political system would not work. Participation should not be overly encouraged. The danger is in having too much, not too little, public involvement in politics. Guardians see the public as a baby who, when it becomes upset, cries to alert its parental guardians. Although the "baby" public may know something is wrong, it can't provide solutions—only cry out.

Walter Lippmann gave the bluntest formulation of the case for guardians when he argued that citizens are like theatergoers who arrive in the middle of the third act and leave before the final curtain. They have neither the capacity nor the interest to direct public affairs responsibly. [10] The best citizens can do is to choose their best leaders.

To be fair to the argument for guardians, the select few are not supposed to be the most powerful but the most virtuous. They are to be the guardians of excellence in public life, practitioners of— and role models for—civic virtue. Guardian-like leaders are needed to do what is right, even in the face of popular opposition. Given the continuing fear of "the masses," support for a guardian-led republic is still around. We hear it in the often-repeated lament about the lack of strong leaders. This may seem antidemocratic, but, after all, in a republic we do get to elect our leaders. So the argument is made that our democratic ideals can be adequately realized at the ballot box. This is why there is such a premium on electoral democracy—to the exclusion of other democratic practices.

What Went Wrong?

Politics directed by the best, democratically elected leaders and mediated by the open competition of interest groups is attractive. Who could argue against leadership selected by majority vote? Who in the United States doesn't believe in the value of free competition? What is wrong with having groups champion their particular interests? Certainly there are enough groups to represent every possible interest. (Is there anything in the country for which we do not have an interest group?) How could anyone hate such a sensible political system? Yet, although people may like the theory, they don't like the results.

Was Madison wrong in his assumptions that there would always be self-interests and that it would be better to control the "mischief of factions" than to destroy liberty or try to make certain that everyone would have the same opinions? Probably not. Today we may have even more reason to believe that economic differences ("the unequal distribution of property"), ideological differences ("a zeal for different opinions"), and various ambitions for power ("different leaders ambitiously contending for preeminence and power") produce mutual animosity. We could even add racial, gender, and ethnic differences to Madison's list of the sources of conflict. Furthermore, we need to remind ourselves that Madison said the purpose of political competition was not simply to produce winners but rather to advance the public good and ensure civil rights for all. [11] And Madison believed people had the capacity ("sufficient virtue") for self-government. [12] So the point is not that Madison was wrong or that the design of our representative system is fatally flawed. It seems more profitable to look at what modern circumstances have done to the character of factions and the nature of their conflict and to consider what these forces have done to representative government.

James Madison could not have imagined what would happen in two hundred years. Yet now we know that a system of representative, faction-driven government is very vulnerable to special interest control, lobbyist manipulation, the influence of money, and thirty-second commercials. It is relatively easy to push citizens to the back of the bus—particularly if citizens help the process along by accepting their roles as consumers or by opting out of the system.

The hope that all would be made right at the ballot box is not realized when money, not votes, controls who is elected and what policies are adopted. And today's interest groups are a far cry from Madison's factions. Madison would not have believed the enormous sums of money that interest groups raise to meet the equally enormous cost of campaigns. Nor were the factions he had in mind narrow, single-issue groups. His factions were "debtors" or "landed interest'' or "mercantile interests." He would not have realized that the ability to raise money to influence legislation is often greater with a single issue.

Neither could Madison have anticipated the degree to which lobbyists have become, in citizens' eyes, "the real representatives." It is quite a different maner to be represented by various lobbyists than to be represented by one person. We expect representatives to do what we do—balance carefully, give appropriate weight, and assign priorities to the various interests we have. We don't hire lobbyists to represent our balanced views.

Interest groups are created to represent one of our particular interests and pressure officials to respond to one particular concern. Even if many of our interests are being advanced by various lobbyists, we still may not feel that we (in the sense of our more integrated selves) are really represented. That may be why people say that the public interest is the only interest not represented.

To be fair, interest group competition does, just as Madison hoped, keep some balance in the system. And interest group politics has its own claim to being democratic, a claim that rests on two assumptions. One is that everyone is in—or can be in—an interest group and can, therefore, be "represented." The other is that everyone in an interest group understands his or her interest the same way. Both assumptions, however, are questionable. Everyone in an interest group is not of the same mind. And even with all our groups, large portions of our population are not members of any "faction." [13]

Even the claim that interest groups serve to make the public more aware of issues, and of what the options are, is open to question. Certainly, interest groups serve the public good by raising citizens' consciousness on critical issues. They offer policy options that go beyond those offered by politicians. The problem, perhaps not of their making, is that even the interest groups may not give the public all the valid options on a policy question. All the possible "products" don't necessarily get on the shelf for citizens to consider. The only options the public hears, so it is charged, are those that powerful interests have decided are appropriate. [14] Madison's assumptions about how representative government could work best have been unsettled most by what has happened to government itself in the last two hundred years. Probably the greatest change in our political circumstances since Madison's generation is the far greater role that government plays in our lives. Although the Federalists argued for a stronger central government than was laid out in the Articles of Confederation, they still wanted only limited government. Limited government was the passion of the eighteenth century. So in that century, when government had relatively few issues to address, a clash of interests seemed tolerable. Now, however, when government affects nearly every interest and every aspect of everyday life, that clash of factions has the sound of never-ending conflict.

Politics is now consumed by government, thus changing the very nature of politics. Politics has become narrowly restricted to one task, that of managing a multitude of very large governments, state and local as well as federal. Whether that change is good or bad is not the issue here. How it has affected citizens and their role is.

To a degree, our scheme for government, with the role given to interest groups and guardians, has become a substitute for a more complete theory of politics. As government has moved to the center of the political universe, the quintessential political act has become influencing government. That is what interest groups have always done and that is how the citizens' role is defined. Consider a modern textbook's interpretation of political participation: participation is an act of "influencing the government, either by affecting the choice of government personnel or by affecting the choices made by government personnel.'' [l5]

The implications of this definition are far-reaching. Citizens are not thought of as the legitimate authors of the public's interest. Instead, they are looked upon as supplicants trying to influence government on their own behalf, recruits for bringing group pressure, or consumers of the prefabricated opinions of others. The problem isn't that citizens have no role in this redefinition of politics; it is that their role demotes them from the first officers of a democracy to mere conscripts.

In this vision of politics as a special realm directed by governments and "professionals," ordinary citizens have to be drafted for political duty the way recruits are brought into an army. The idea is to make advocates of the supposedly apathetic. So "pols" enlist citizens in order to bring their influence to bear on a wide array of causes and to serve as cannon fodder for the factional warfare of interest group politics.

To increase their clout, interest groups naturally try to recruit more and more citizens. They bombard citizens with appealing images and sound bites to sell them a particular point of view or "solution" to a political problem. Of course, this changes the character of political debate. The purpose of the exchange is not to listen to people, to open up a two-way dialogue; the objective is to persuade.

by giving government the central role and making "influencing" the essence of political activity, interest groups and guardian politicians not only turn the political debate into a sales meeting, but they also create unusual, post-Madisonian, theory of representation. The basic unit of politics is no longer to be the individual citizen but a corporate body, a group of some type. Individuals are important only if they are represented by a group or are, themselves, representatives of a group. In a recent movie, Roger and Me, the principal character is denied entry into an office on the grounds that he "did not represent anyone." In that same sense, citizens as citizens don't have any standing or voice. [16] They don't represent anyone but themselves.

In this concept of representation, elected officials are presumed not to represent individuals; rather, they represent groups. The consequence is that citizens no longer feel they are represented by anyone. And in this kind of politics, they aren't.

The way modern factions and political leaders conduct politics sets a powerful example for others. Today, whether in a high school classroom or a senior citizen center, whether in a corporate boardroom or a low-income neighborhood, many believe that the only way things get done in politics is to sell the public on political solutions, the same way marketers sell the public on soap or cars. And "what is" easily becomes "what should be." Treating citizens as consumers, concentrating on telling them what is good for them, is much easier than really involving them in politics. Sitting back as a tax-paying consumer and criticizing government's guardians is much easier for people than taking the initiative themselves. And deciding matters in open factional combat has the assuring attraction of the free competition that Americans cherish. If we are honest with ourselves, we have to admit that government by factions and guardians has its appeal.

Yet, this politics-as-usual system ultimately evokes anger and contempt. Often the same people who join interest groups—and who may feel their own groups are good—become outraged when they look at the political system as a whole.

Can We Do Better Than Politics as Usual?

Despite all that has gone wrong with politics as usual, it is still the established way of doing business. Politics may not work as citizens want it to, but maybe there isn't any alternative because of people's selfish self-interest. Modern realists say, like it or not, we have to have powerful interest groups, factional conflict, and constant manipulation of the press to bring outside influence to bear on the government. Because the public is divided into factions around particular interests, the best we can hope for is open competition. Are we necessarily slaves to our own selfishness then? And if so, what are the costs of that slavery?

To make self-interest the cornerstone of our political system precludes any coherent sense of the common good, argues Benjamin Barber, a contemporary democratic theorist. Barber worries that no foundation for citizenship or civic virtue will be found in a political system based on maximizing self-interest. Politics becomes no more than "the conduct of public affairs for private advantage." [17] A democracy that operates like a marketplace for competing interests demotes politics to the regulation of passions with countervailing passions. "Modern political philosophy," the columnist George Will contends, "has transformed a fact (man's appetitive nature) into a moral principle." A society so constructed, he argues, cannot long endure because our sense of "shared fate" and duty to one another has become thin gruel. [18] Can we really believe that some "guiding hand" will produce a common good out of aggregated selfishness, that it is a substitute for a sense of shared fate and civic duty? No, say the critics; to believe that is to believe in political alchemy. After all, even Adam Smith believed that competition had to be carried on in a moral or ethical context.

What, then, could be a basis for an alternative to politics as usual? Can we assume that enough people are really unselfish and altruistic and, therefore, do away with our safeguards? Should we—can we—eliminate all kinds of interest groups? Are all interest groups promoting the narrow interest of their members? Should we expect less of our leaders than that they be dedicated to the public interest? No!

A basis for a different kind of politics is found in the Main Street study and other case studies that show that self-interest is not always selfish interest, that our interests can be broad and general, not just narrow. People have a self-interest in advancing the broader public interest.

What about the truism that we always vote our pocketbooks? At best, it is only partially true. Shared values, or what some call "macromotives," very much affect our political behavior. Moreover, successful reforms—from abolition to civil rights—have been based on widely shared values about what was thought to be in the larger public interest. [19] Of course we have differences over what is in our common interest, yet people have, and act out of, interests other than those that are narrow and particular.

Broader self-interests grow out of the varied relationships we have with other people. As the community organizer Ernesto Cortes points out, "I was born Mexican and I was born in San Antonio. Understanding my interests has to do with understanding also my history, my situation, my relationship with those people who are important to me, my children, my family, etc." The very word interests, he notes, refers to that which is among or between (inter esse), so his self-interests are constituted by those he is among and to whom he is connected. [20]

These broader interests include the community as a whole and such public goods as air and water. Common sense tells us that when a public good is threatened, we are all at risk—a hole in one end of the boat is going to bring water to the other. Repairing the boat is not an unselfish or noble act; it is simply the expression of self-interest in something common. People can appreciate their interdependence. Ernesto Cortes explains his own sense of interdependence: "I have three children, a wife, a house. And it is in my interest, for example, for my neighborhood to be secure. It is in my interest for my child to be able to go to school without worrying about being killed. . . . So I want to do something about the schools now, not just because I'm caring about other people's kids, but because I'm caring about my own child." Cortes knew that he couldn't protect his child by himself; he couldn't stop the violence in the schools alone. He couldn't get what he wanted without someone else. So he developed an "interest" in the others who could help him, and he learned to reciprocate in helping them in order to get the assistance he needed. [21]

Like Cortes, we reason that a healthy community is in our self-interest, so we should do what is needed to help our community—even if it is difficult. For example, members of a leadership group in Montgomery, Alabama, decided that they could not have the kind of community they wanted unless they acted together to improve race relations. One member of the group said, "I think we're talking about a bunch of interconnected problems. . . . But in our city, if we had to pick one, it would have to be racism. . . . racial politics goes to the heart of so many things that we consider problems." [22]

People will act to advance the public interest on such difficult long-term problems as race relations even when there is little immediate, personal benefit. Amitai Etzioni, a sociologist, finds evidence that even when people receive little or no tangible reward for their efforts, they make moral commitments to advance the public interest. Etzioni points out that many people vote and engage in a number of voluntary political activities despite the fact that they receive virtually no direct benefits. If immediate self-interests and a cost-benefit calculus controlled our behavior, we probably wouldn't vote at all. The cost of becoming informed on many issues and candidates, and of registering and getting to the polls, outweighs any possible direct benefit that one vote out of millions could bring. In other words, people do not act just to maximize private gain. They can act out of a sense of duty, a sense of obligation to do what is in the best interest of the whole. [23] When asked why she was involved in community politics, a woman from Seattle said, "Because it is needed—so I do it." "It is needed" is not the same as "I need it." Many of us volunteer for community activities because we sense that our community "needs it." People may not always be virtuous but that does not mean they are incapable of virtue.

In the final analysis, how people behave politically may be, in part, a function of what the political norms expect of them. A political system based on advancing the public interest may be more likely to prompt a sense of civic duty than a system based on advancing private interests.

Chapter 4: We, the People; They, the Government

Someone once said, half seriously, that the most significant moment in our history may have been when Americans stopped saying "We, the People" and began saying "They, the Government." We know a good deal about what citizens think of politicians and politics, but what about the way politicians see the public? What is their side of the story about why politics isn't what it could be?

The Great Divide

A widening gulf between "We, the People" and "They, the Government," this schism in the body politic, does not serve the public interest. Although who is "right" is open to question, who suffers is not; our country and our communities suffer. Surely we need to understand more about why citizens and officeholders have little that is positive to say about one another. Saying that the problem is good people and bad government is superficial and onesided.

What do officeholders think about the public's distrust and criticism? That question was addressed in an earlier Harwood investigation, one that explored the way officials, in this case state and local policymakers, see the public. Although the conventional wisdom is that local officials are closer to the people and therefore have a better relationship with them, the report, The Public's Role in the Policy Process: A View from State and Local Policymakers, found that even local officials have great difficulty in relating to the public. Officials may want to deal with the public in more effective ways. Yet often they have neither the philosophical framework nor the practical mechanism they need to do so. [1] Someone once described how a marriage could be troubled even though each partner lived up to his or her own image of a good mate. The problem was that neither accepted the other's definition of a good partner. So, as each one became better at doing what he or she thought was right, the more they disliked one another. That is much the sort of situation in which the public and the government find themselves. What citizens often find objectionable in officials is the very behavior that policymakers believe is the right way to do their jobs.

Officials see their role and relationship to the public in almost precisely the way the theory of representative government says they should: as guardians of the public interest. They believe that the public has an opportunity to vote them out of office if people don't like the job they are doing. Otherwise, officials feel they should be left alone to do the job they were "hired" to do. They are often as frustrated with the public as the public is with them. They find the public generally uninformed, more emotional than reasonable, and indifferent to serious problems—more inclined to drink beer and watch television entertainment than to think seriously about policy issues. Nonetheless, many officials work hard to listen to and "educate" the public.

At a conference on citizens and government, a community leader from Oklahoma and a member of Congress from Wyoming were airing their mutual frustrations. The community leader voiced the average citizen's complaint that the government doesn't pay attention to the public, and the congressman described the problem of getting more mail than anyone could reasonably be expected to read. Worst of all, he said, was the implication that the public really knew what the answers were and that officials only needed to listen more closely to avoid making so many "dumb decisions. " [2] He questioned what the public brings to political decision making—other than a right to be heard. Nothing blocks the relationship between the public and government officials more than uncertainty about what the public has to offer—except endless demands and ever-changing opinions. Citizens as well as officials share that uncertainty.

As long as this question is unattended, political rhetoric in this country runs the danger of patronizing the public. Able officials and sincere citizens will continue to feel a deep sense of frustration. Officeholders will be frustrated in their attempts to convey the complexities of issues. Many will continue to despair over what they see as the public's unwillingness to grapple seriously with difficult problems. For their part, citizens will sense threats to their well-being as they continue to feel left out of crucial policy decisions. Caught between conflicting assessments and prescriptions for complex problems, many will doubt both the competence and the good faith of government's leaders. [3]

Of course, officials do not all think in any one particular way. Still, many see only two options for governing the country: let representatives, after listening to the public's concerns, exercise their own best judgment about what should be done, or let the country face the uncertainties of direct popular decision making by direct balloting on issues. Officials fix on these two alternatives because they can find no middle ground; they generally do not see any way of governing with the public. Either they can run the political system in a "professional" manner, or the country will be lost to the masses.

Officials have a particular aversion to being directed by popular whims or raw public opinion. Officeholders who respond to every jump in the public pulse get low marks from their colleagues. "You wfll become known as 'blowing in the wind,"' warned a mayor when speaking about those politicians who follow public opinion too closely. In their minds, officials have a simple choice to make. Either they can "lead" the public by making decisions to the best of their own abilities, or they can put a finger up, test the direction of public opinion, and follow it indiscriminately. Officials think of themselves as leaders. Said a mayor, "If you are making decisions just on [public] opinions, I have a problem. . . . I just don't see our making decisions as elected officials just on opinions. If you want to do that [get] a robot."

The public's place is in the electoral booth. "The single most important act of public participation is the election," one mayor declared with finality. That same opinion was often repeated. "In representative government," said another mayor, "[the public] elects policymakers; that's the way it is." The problem, of course, is that the public is often unwilling to vote or to have voting be the sole means of relating to people in office.

Beleaguered Public Servants

The life of a conscientious representative or official is not easy. At most local levels of government, the jobs are part-time, and people serve more out of a sense of duty than for political glory. Positions on small town councils and county commissions are usually low paying and filled with perils. Local officials share with their state and federal colleagues a host of problems that never seem to go away despite their best efforts. Whether faced with economic growth or decline, there are problems of adjustment. Streets, water systems, and the physical infrastructure have to be expanded before revenues are available, or they have to be maintained after revenues have disappeared due to closing plants and empty shopping centers. Zoning divisions are a constant battle. Education is at the top of everyone's list of immediate concerns and yet low on the attention needed for fundamental changes. Environmental issues multiply with each passing day. No one wants the landfill in his or her area. The list goes on.

Decisions turn increasingly to complex scientific or technical considerations at both local and national levels. What is a safe level of chlorine in the water? Should there be any chlorine in the water at all? What role do the wetlands play in our environment? What are we sacrificing when we develop natural areas for commercial use? Should nuclear energy supplant our dependence on crude oil? What are the pros and cons of nuclear energy? What do we really know about the spread of the AIDS virus? Is the population at large at risk? Interest groups multiply on all these issues and produce gridlocks as impenetrable as the worst trafffic jams. Levels of government wrangle constantly over who has jurisdiction over what and who should pay for what.

While officials who face these problems on behalf of the public might expect some appreciation or respect, they don't often get it. Once elected, many find they become "instant SOB's." Overnight, friendly neighbors turn into outraged constituents. The press treats them with such obvious suspicion that they feel guilty until proven innocent. Although what they say is always suspect, the veracity of their critics is seldom questioned. Personal lives become an open book. Families suffer along with of ficeholders; their plight is greeted with an unsympathetic "it comes with the territory."

What sustains officeholders under these pressures, unless they are in politics for personal gain, is a deep conviction that they are servants of the larger public interest. They are trustees of their community or state or government. They are the guardians of the common good, the judges of public controversies. As fair arbitrators, they must be above the fray. Yet this very perception, this sense of being above the fray, is at the heart of their differences with equally conscientious citizens.

The troubled relationship between citizens and offficials is even more troubled when the officials are unelected—"bureaucrats," as they are called (they prefer to call themselves "professionals"). The public seems to get angrier with them than with elected representatives. The anger seems justified because unelected officials wield great power in ways the public believes is arbitrary.

The civil servants' defense is that they are also guardians of the public interest. Their intentions are the best, and professional administration is the best. However, the public doesn't quite fit into a vision of professional government. Professionals know what the public needs; citizens are more like patients or clients. Of course, not all civil servants buy into this paradigm, but it is thrust upon them by their profession.

As a scholar of public administration, Woodrow Wilson recognized that democracy and professional civil service were potentially inimical to one another. [4] Democracy is based on the premise that what the public decides takes precedence over what administrative practice dictates. Public administration operates on just the opposite principle; sound administrative practice is the controlling consideration. Put another way, bureaucracies operate according to what they believe is good administrative procedure, not what is good democratic practice. For example, in an administrative hearing on adherence to agency rules, a citizen is presumed guilty of having violated the rule until proven innocent. Unlike regular judicial proceedings, the burden of proof is on the citizen to show that he or she was not in violation of some ordinance or rule. The tavern owner who is locked in a bitter dispute over why he can't have a sign on both his front and back doors, and the homeowner who is fined because she painted her house a shade that was not exactly the shade stipulated in the ordinance for historic homes, are just two of many Americans who have run afoul of "good administrative practice."

Encounters of the unpleasant kind can touch every aspect of a citizen's life. Bureaucracies, large and small, promulgate more rules than legislative bodies pass laws. These rules, supposedly only applications of law, appear to the public to be interpretations of law. Certainly the rules have the force of law even though they were not created by elected bodies. Although there are requirements that notice be given of the intent to create a rule, and although public hearings are held, a bureaucracy is not bound by the public response it receives. There are no provisions for open debate, as there are in legislative proceedings.

The civil servants' defense is that the vagueness of laws often forces them to interpret their intent. (Vagueness or even ambiguity is often essential to getting a law passed because these qualities mute controversy.) Furthermore, most agencies do hold public hearings or invite written comment on proposed regulations.

Some civil servants, concerned about this tension between public administration and democracy, have been strong champions of public participation. They believe that encouraging citizenship is a professional obligation. [5] The very existence of public information officers or staff to governmentcreated advisory committees demonstrates that there are those in government who want to reach out to the public. Sad to say, however, when these "access professionals" attempt to get time to explain their work on the programs for training new civil servants, their efforts are rarely supported by their superiors. Moreover, at their best, efforts to involve citizens often grow out of a rather patronizing view of the public. As an advocate of public participation observed, "The reality is that if citizens are to be self-governing, they are going to have to be sustained, encouraged, spoonfed, and educated about public decisions by those who know what is going on." Career public officials are at the center of this democratic experiment; indeed, in this view, they now control the experiment. [6] While well intentioned, the quotation implies that the public doesn't have anything substantive to contribute. People only need to be "educated" about what the government is doing.

How Officials See the Public

While citizens are convinced that officials pay no attention to them, officeholders, both elected and appointed, have just the opposite perception. They see themselves in constant contact with the public. One local official counted the ways: "They write you letters. They call you up [and] write to the newspapers." When they're concerned about an issue, "they let you know that very quickly." Officeholders cite letters to the editor of the newspaper, as well as letters and telephone calls they receive at their offices, as the primary ways of hearing what the public has to say.

Beyond letters and telephone calls, local officials have direct contact with constituents through chance meetings in shops, conversations on Main Street, and discussions at civic clubs. County commissioners spoke quite eloquently—and forcefully—about the importance of such interaction. Said one, "I have served for nineteen years, and I know most of my constituents. I hear from them in the supermarket." Another said, "I see people in the grocery store or at other meetings—Rotary or wherever I go—and they say things in passing so I know everything is OK."

Officials, elected ones in particular, believe that they know the public very well—perhaps better than the public knows itself. Their experiences with the public shape the way they see their jobs. Yet those experiences often leave them with an unfavorable impression of the citizenry. Many believe, like Thomas Hobbes, that if left to its own devices the public would degenerate into a war of "each against each" and "each against all." Life would be "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short" because, they believe, people are neither willing to take the responsibility nor equal to the task of selfgovernment. [7]


"The average citizen doesn't care one way or another about public issues. It is the nature of the beast," charged a county commissioner. Many officeholders think that citizens have too many other demands on their time—at home, in the workplace, and elsewhere—to participate in policymaking. "Most people are so involved and wrapped up in getting Johnny to school, getting Johnny fed, and getting Johnny clothed, that they really don't have or take the time to get involved," observed one state legislator. Added another legislator, "When you talk about a working mom. . . [who] has no husband at home and she has four kids, she isn't worried about the national debt. She is worried about paying the light bill this month. It is not that she is deliberately uninvolved or uneducated, but she is coping with those daytoday issues. I see it every day."

Officials do admit, however, that citizens take the initiative to participate in the policy process when an issue directly affects them. "When the interests of people are jeopardized," a county commissioner noted, "that's when they get involved." Another commissioner observed, "Most people don't get involved until their taxes go up or it's next door to them."

People in office notice the difference between the attention they give issues and the public indifference they encounter. They count attendance at meetings and find that few citizens show up for public hearings. Citizens appear to demand a great deal from officials yet little from themselves. One county commissioner bemoaning this discrepancy said, "The public spends or invests about a tenth of what they expect their elected officials to invest." So policymakers become resigned to what they perceive as apathy. "Reality is, there are a lot of people out there who don't give a damn," argued a mayor. "They really don't want to give the time. take the time. And you have to accept that."


Not only don't citizens care, some officials contend; often they don't even know what is going on. Officeholders talked repeatedly about how ignorant citizens are, of how difficult it is for them to grasp the technical and expert considerations central to complex issues. The public doesn't appear to have the facts, certainly not the facts the officials have. Yet people's ignorance, as officeholders see it, does not affect their willingness to "interfere." Officials worry that the public acts increasingly out of emotion and misunderstanding. "We have a particular danger in California," a mayor explained, "in that we have the 'initiative' route that citizens can use at the local or at the state level. We often get bills, 'initiatives,' that nobody understands, including the people who put them on the ballot."

In order for citizens to understand policy issues, officials say that those issues must be translated. They find it difficult, however, to simplify an issue without watering the subject down until all the substance is gone. Talking about a complex issue critical to his state's financial future, one legislator described the frustration he and other representatives have felt in dealing with the public. He said the legislature had developed a plan to address an especially difficult problem but never could get the public to understand it, despite efforts to bring citizens into the process.

These "especially difficult" issues with complex technical considerations come up quite frequently, both locally and nationally. Gerald Holton, a physicist and historian of science at Harvard University, points out that "the fates of science, technology, and society have become linked in ever more complex ways, each of the three being shaped as much by the other two as by its own dynamics. By a recent estimate, nearly half the bills before the U.S. Congress have a substantial science/technology component." [8]

A scientific society challenges democratic practice. Experts believe technological issues make it harder, if not impossible, for the public to exercise its right to participate. The average citizen is thought unable to comprehend what is happening in the technical centers of our country—unable to appreciate the impact of new technologies, which scientists believe actually direct society. Public policy on such issues may cease to be public at all, many scientists feel. Policy may no longer be subject to public control. [9]

Many officials have already reached the same conclusion. It is difficult enough for the public to understand ordinary issues; it seems impossible when the issues turn on scientific considerations. Environmental issues are just one example. As one state legislator explained, "When you are talking about an issue in nebulous, overall, philosophical [terms], people come out and you can have a dialogue with them. But when you start talking about setting a disposal site in their neighborhood, that's a different issue!" The difference is that there are matters of science and technology involved. Officials tend to agree with the experts, believing that the issues are too complex for the public to understand. Officeholders often say it is their job to know of the "best" technical solutions and to decide matters for the public.

How Officials See Themselves

When officials think of themselves as guardians of the public interest, this self-concept informs and circumscribes what they do with the public. They believe it is part of their job to interact with the public—that is, to be open if people want to say anything—although responsiveness to the public is not necessarily their first priority. They see their real job as decision maker. As they describe their duties, "[You] spend time to delve into that issue and come up with decisions. . . . [You] listen to what people have to say, but it's your decision."

Decision makers believe they have several responsibilities—to manage, arbitrate, advocate, and educate. In each of these roles, officials think of themselves as being in charge. Ironically and unfortunately, however, these roles that officials play even when they are performed well—can leave citizens feeling ignored or patronized.

Managers of Public Problems

"Managers" identify problems and find solutions. This role is most critical in situations where officeholders believe the problems require technical solutions, although it is a role they feel they must play in nearly all situations. A mayor explained, "You despair of educating the broad public [on these issues]. It is a matter of trying to manage how the public looks at what is going on so that you can make it happen and still survive." The central task for managers is to bring the public along and get people to accept their ideas. This involves building broadbased support for a solution and working with the media to ensure that coverage does not sensationalize conflicts. Throughout the process, officials try to "shape" public attitudes and public involvement.

Arbiters of Competing Interests

At times, various interest groups will not be able to agree on a course of action. Competing organized interests may make conflicting claims on the government. Consequently, there is no accepted solution that can be implemented. In these situations, officials feel they should act as arbiters.

Under these circumstances, officeholders go to great lengths to hear out the various partisan camps. Their role is analogous to that of a judge who listens to all the evidence from opposing sides and then renders a verdict. The public is represented in the proceedings by interest groups, which are usually well informed and may even add valuable data to the proceedings. The public at large, however, does not have the same standing. Extensive discussions with an uninformed public are considered unnecessary, perhaps even counterproductive. Certainly, officials don't normally feel that it is their role to encourage such discussion. "I [can't] give citizens every end point [on a discussion]. I don't think that is my responsibility as an elected official," said a county commissioner. "And I don't think they elect me for that—because they expect me to know more, expect me to make intelligent decisions."

Officeholders see themselves not only as judges but also as arbiters who step in when competing interests can't reconcile their differences. Like any good arbiter, they gather all the information they can and sort through it. But in the end, they don't usually act as mediators bringing the parties into agreement; they make the final decision themselves.

As Educators

Although, as one official said, officeholders may despair of educating the whole public, they still consider a degree of public education to be part of their responsibility. Some warm to this task. "The more educated the public is on an issue, I think the easier our job is," one mayor said. A state legislator agreed, "When people are educated and aware, they are more involved." Education, however, has a special meaning for officials, and it is not the sort of education that citizens always appreciate.

Often the education is provided on an "if you want to know, I'll tell you" basis. Officeholders can be passive educators, like the county commissioner who wanted people "to pick up the phone and call me once in a while or drop me a postcard—or some type of communication, anything." Although he welcomed responses to the information he gave citizens, this commissioner was not looking for a dialogue. Communication in which information flows in only one direction is typical. There is no exchange, no meeting of the minds, although officials and citizens may even take turns "educating" each other. Most official meetings with the public are structured in ways that reinforce this oneway communication. Officials tend to sit above the audience on a dais; the public sits in rows facing them.

Educating the public, for most officeholders, really means telling citizens what needs to be done—as a teacher does when lecturing. One mayor even said, "We are teachers. We are constantly doing that." Indeed they are. And like the instruction in some classrooms, theirs is not an interactive education. The citizens' role is basically to learn, to absorb what is being taught. A county commissioner described his approach to educating the public about solid waste: "[People] have to have an education that we just create too much garbage."

Some officials, on the other hand, believe that educating the public is dangerous. As one county official put it, "What would be the purpose of trying to educate the public and have the public come in on everything you deal with every day? You, as an official, would become so frustrated because you are going to have a division of forces of people all the time."

What often draws officials into educating the public, despite their reservations, is the role they think the media play—or do not play—in public education. Local officials say that the media's lack of understanding of issues has forced them to put more emphasis on their own role as educators. They can no longer react to news; they must help shape it. That requires playing a more active role in educating the public through the media. These new responsibilities, said one city manager, have "changed the way I do my job." Indeed, officeholders feel that they must take this more active role because the public learns about policy issues through the media. And they realize that if they do not act, the media will frame the issues before they can.

All of these comments by elected and appointed officials show a group of professionals doing exactly what they believe responsible guardians of the public interest should be doing—making tough decisions and trying to manage the public's reaction. Many, perhaps a sizable majority, care about the public even if the public doesn't think so. However, most do not see a real, substantive role for the public. They recognize that the public has the ultimate authority and can vote them out of office. Beyond that, what the public could do to help them do their jobs better is an unexplored issue.


The Way Things Were Supposed to Be
We, the People; They, the Government
When Officials Need the Public
Notes and Bibliography

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