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Combatting Political Exhaustion: An ABC Guide for Public Servants

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Patrick S. Malone
March 11, 2024

If you’re feeling exhausted, you’re not alone, and if you’re a public servant, you’re probably really exhausted!

Things certainly seemed more normal back in 2019, prior to COVID-19. Once the pandemic hit our lives changed forever. In particular, the workplace changed. Many resigned and we soon found ourselves settling into the unfamiliar landscape of virtual work. The bosses-that-be then decided that it was time to “come back to work” and the office battle of in-person versus virtual began. Cal Newport, in his December 2023 New Yorker article coined the phrase “The Great Exhaustion” to describe the current period of hyper-communication, back-to-back meetings that drain the soul and an insufferable and unwelcomed blending of our personal and professional lives. Sounds about right.

And if that’s not enough, it’s an election year!

The concept of voter fatigue is not new, but we aren’t talking fatigue here. In political science circles, voter fatigue is generally associated with confusion based on a lack of adequate information across a number of issues—or being asked to vote too often. The latter hasn’t happened often in recent years, and as for the former? Well, let’s just say our politics, at least at the national level, have become far less about real issues and more about, well, you know.

This isn’t fatigue. It’s exhaustion.

A recent study by the Pew Research Center showed in late 2023 that almost two-thirds of Americans (65 percent) say they always/often feel exhausted when thinking about politics.  Fifty-five percent say they feel angry, and less than 15 percent express feelings of hope or excitement. And no wonder. The social/political landscape is dominated by us-versus-them views on both sides, with little tolerance for compromise or agreement. We are constantly bombarded with partisan warfare, court decisions, appeals and salacious accusations—not something the Founders envisioned in the internet age.

The Washington Post’s Jennifer Rubin reported in her opinion column last year that a poll of 1,200 people revealed how people feel about our nation today. The emotions listed were: frustration, disappointment, exhaustion, disgust and anger. She noted that almost two-thirds fear the ‘extremes’ and almost 90 percent consider our biggest threats to be domestic. She disconcertingly found that almost 60 percent feel they ‘have no voice’ in politics today.  No wonder we’re fatigued.

Those who devote their lives to the public service have a double whammy where political exhaustion is concerned. Not only do they have the rights, as all citizens do, to vote in elections, and therefore need to remain informed about candidates and electoral choices, but they also have a responsibility to serve under those elected officials in a non-partisan fashion. They have the fundamental right of voting to express their opinion, yet they must promise to deliver public policy that they may or may not personally agree with depending on who’s elected. Hence, one of the many reasons it is called the public service

So how does today’s public servant handle political exhaustion? How does one get up every morning with an energized passion for the roads that they build, the parks that they maintain, the national defense they support or the myriad of services they provide to an unwitting nation? Try the following:

Awareness. Take note of how much time you spend absorbing political content. For example, think about the first thing you do each morning. Do you go to an app to check the latest news? What about social media platforms? Do you turn on the television to catch the latest reporting? What do you listen to when you commute to and from work?  If the answer to the above is primarily political in nature, consider a more measured intake of your political news.

Balance. Another consideration is to more effectively balance the sources from which you gather your political information. It is, indeed, getting more and more difficult to find sensible sources of news but with a little work, one can always uncover news outlets that provide more than one perspective on the day’s events. Overseas news broadcasts prove to be valuable in this regard as well and offer a more international perspective on what we are facing here at home. The key is to draw from an array of sources and make your best decision.

Create. By opening our minds to other points of view, we create learning pathways in the brain, and by default, become more inclusive, and accepting. Try to adopt a “what can I learn from this information” perspective on political conversations. There’s always something to discover, even in the midst of significant disagreement. And be aware of the nonverbal cues you may be sending when partisan topics arise. If you become too emotionally overwhelmed, simply step away and take a few minutes to breathe and reflect.

Public servants have it much more difficult than the average citizen where issues of political exhaustion are concerned. Just remember when all is said and done politicians will come and go, but the public service workforce will remain, continuing on with the amazing work they do: delivering civilization to all of us.

That’s something to be thankful for, especially in an exhausting election year.

Author: Patrick S. Malone is the Director, Key Executive Leadership Programs at American University.  He is a frequent guest lecturer and author on leadership and organizational dynamics in the public service.  His co-authored book, “Leading with Love and Laughter – A Practical Guide to Letting Go and Getting Real” (Berrett-Koehler Publishing) was released in Spring 2021. His new co-authored book “Leading in Small Moments” is targeted for publication in Fall 2025. Follow him at sutchmalone.com

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