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The Great Disconnect

By: Sheila Suess Kennedy

As another election season comes to a (merciful) close, one lesson is abundantly clear: there is a huge disconnect between the skill sets public offices require and the sales pitches candidates are making.

Campaigns are job applications and the candidates are applicants. We voters are the folks doing the hiring. In order to make informed “hires,” we need to know two things: what competencies the job requires, and which of the “applicants” come equipped with the requisite skills as well as our preferred policy positions.

Is this election for mayor, governor or president? We need someone who understands the relevant administrative structure, who is able to assess and recruit knowledgeable technocrats and aides, who has a good grasp of economic and budgetary issues, tax policies, intergovernmental relations and the mechanics of service delivery. It is highly desirable that the applicant be aware of the competing needs and desires of the diverse constituencies to be served and have an ability to communicate with representatives of those constituencies.

Is this an election to fill a legislative seat? In addition to the skills listed above, a policy background is highly desirable—as is a demonstrated ability to work in a bipartisan way with other legislators and members of the executive branch.

If democratic processes are going to produce satisfactory results, voters need information that allows them to match the qualifications of the candidates to the requirements of the position. Unfortunately, it is impossible to sit through the avalanche of misleading 30-second spots, scurrilous Internet postings or negative direct-mail pieces that flood our in-boxes and snail-mail boxes and not conclude that the task is impossible, and that the American electoral process is badly broken.

There is no dearth of theories about what ails us: too much money, too much rigid ideology, too much partisanship, too many lobbyists, too many pundits and too few real reporters….the list is extensive, and all of the items on that list undoubtedly contribute to the sorry state of today’s politics. But these things would matter less if the electorate were better informed.

Let me just offer a couple of all-too-typical examples. In my state, a Senate candidate is currently airing a spot blasting his opponent—a sitting Congressman—for voting to raise the debt ceiling. This political attack depends for its effectiveness on public ignorance of the difference between a vote to raise the debt ceiling and a vote to add to the national debt. Large bipartisan majorities have raised the ceiling without controversy for many years, because members of both parties have understood that difference.

The national debt is a real problem. Reasonable people can disagree about the mix of “revenue enhancements” (aka taxes) and spending cuts needed to address that problem, how much stimulus is needed to get the economy moving again, and what programs might be cut without harming our still-tenuous recovery from the Great Recession. But only someone with absolutely no understanding of the economic system advocates a reckless act that would make it impossible for the U.S. Government to pay its bills—and only an uninformed voter would respond positively to such advocacy.

A more typical political attack is some variation on the theme that “Congressman X has been in Washington for Y years, but we still have problem Z.” No one who understands checks and balances and the limits on what any individual member of Congress can accomplish is going to take such a charge seriously. The fact that a political candidate believes this to be an effective argument tells us a lot about that candidate’s respect for the intelligence of the average voter.

There is another possibility, of course. It may be that these appeals are not simply cynical ploys based upon perceived public ignorance. It may be that the people who are running for office actually believe their own arguments. In several races around the country, candidates are promising to enact policies that are clearly unconstitutional. Others are promising to achieve economic results that are mathematically impossible. Knowledgeable folks tend to discount these statements as political games candidates play, but in at least some cases, it’s clear the candidates really don’t know any better.

It would be nice if we could simply shrug off the more embarrassing examples of electoral dysfunction, but the quality of our political candidates ultimately affects both the voting public and the public administrators trying to serve that public.

Just as having a crazy boss makes a private-sector worker’s job more difficult, electing people to set policy in areas they don’t understand is a major barrier to public problem solving. If members of the House Science and Technology Committee reject evidence of global climate change (last year, one member reassured a panel of climate scientists that we don’t need to worry because after the flood, “God promised in Genesis that He would not destroy Earth again, and I believe God”), where will we find the human and fiscal resources necessary to combat global warming and reduce carbon emissions? If members of the Texas Board of Education reject evolution and choose creationist textbooks that are then adopted for use throughout the country, how do conscientious science teachers do their jobs? For that matter, where will we find the next generation of competent biologists and doctors?

There are a number of things individuals might do to help clean up the current mess that is our election system. We can visit fact-checking sites to vet campaign pronouncements. We can work to reform the redistricting process. We can sign on to one of the various efforts to reverse Citizens United – the case that opened the money spigot that became the gusher of SuperPac spending. Those of us who are educators must work to raise the levels of civic literacy in this country.

And we all need to withhold our votes from those who run campaigns geared to public passions and popular ignorance.

We need to close the great disconnect.

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Sheila Suess Kennedy is Professor of Law and Public Policy at the School of Public and Environmental Affairs at IUPUI.

 

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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