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From the Politics of Governing to the Politics of Winning

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

By Michael R. Ford
November 18, 2022

As I write this the election is mercifully over. For weeks my phone was buzzing every few minutes with new political text messages urging me to vote. Most of these messages were negative, urging me to vote against someone, rather than for something. It is easy to conclude this campaign was just politics as usual, but something more is going on in Wisconsin. The state is as purple as they come, yet the Republican party very nearly gained a super-majority in the legislature while a Democrat pretty easily (by Wisconsin standards) won the gubernatorial race. 

The disconnect between Republican domination of the legislature and a statewide Democratic majority is, on its face, odd. There are other signs of political trouble in Wisconsin too. The legislature is one of, if not the, least active in the country. Wisconsin Governor Tony Evers vetoed 126 bills in the last legislative session, the most since 1927. The COVID crisis highlighted the paralysis in Wisconsin’s state government. My own research showed local government officials felt abandoned by state government during the height of the COVID disruption. As one local government leader put it, “We were on our own.”

How is this possible? How does a state with a good government tradition become the poster child for dysfunction? The usual explanation is broken politics with no shortage of finger pointing from partisans of all stripes. To be clear, by any measure our politics are not in a good place. There is a growing fondness of authoritarianism in some circles. Gerrymandering is divorcing political power from the will of the majority. Most scary is the growing rhetoric around, and at times tolerance for, political violence. But we did not get to this point because of one person or movement. It is a result, in my opinion, of a cascading series of decisions that, collectively, shifted the relationship between politics and administration.

The cliché, politics decides and administration does, reflects the myth of the politics-administration dichotomy. I call it a myth because decades of research demonstrates the relationship between politics and administration is far messier than our field’s founding writings posited. But even if the details were messy, the basic concept that a functioning relationship between politics and administration was necessary for a functioning government seemed obvious. It still seems obvious to me, but it is clear that the need for such a relationship is not obvious to all.

Returning to Wisconsin. We are stuck in a loop where political decisions are made to reduce administrative capacity, which in turn reduces trust in government, which in turn reinforces anti-government politics. A prime example currently on my mind is Wisconsin’s approach to municipal financing. Like many states, Wisconsin had an equity-based formula to ensure communities could provide basic services regardless of their tax base. But in 2004, in a political action designed to save state taxpayers money, the state government froze the municipal aid formula. The result was as expected. Local governments had fewer resources to fund basic services, and faced the decision to either raise local property taxes or reduce services.

Also not surprising, the reduction in administrative capacity at the local level reduced trust in local government. Without context that reduction in trust seems logical. I could see why someone watching their property taxes rise while their roads deteriorate would conclude local government is incompetent. The feedback loop continued as legislators railed against rising property taxes. The political response was more cuts to state aid, which again reduced capacity, and further eroded public trust in government.

It is a story that played out in higher education, K-12 education and other service areas. The compounded impact of what started as a series of one-off short-term political decisions to gain advantage in a single election is a complete shift from the politics of governing to the politics of winning. In other words, politics has become an end in itself, rather than a tool for translating values into governing.

I share the Wisconsin experience because it is a cautionary tale that those of us committed to the field of Public Administration need to understand. A democratic society cannot survive if politics is divorced from the goals of a functioning administrative state. If I were to describe the state of governing in Wisconsin in one word, it would be atrophy. The state’s institutions are slowly becoming more and more ineffective because they are being neglected by our politics. I am hopeful that the competence of public employees doing their best in difficult circumstances will lead to a period of renewal, but sometimes I am not so sure that day is coming. At the very least, I hope others will see what is happening here and not repeat the same mistakes.

Author: Michael R. Ford is an associate professor of public administration at the University of Wisconsin  Oshkosh, where he teaches graduate courses in budgeting and research methods. He frequently publishes on the topics of public and nonprofit board governance, accountability and school choice. He currently serves an elected member of the Oshkosh, WI Common Council.

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