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Honest Social Conflict or Dishonest Harmony? The Time for a Decision

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

By William Clements
January 4, 2019

In the words of Frederick Douglass, “the life of the nation is secure only while the nation is honest, truthful, and virtuous.” In the realm of public policy and administration, we, the gatekeepers of America’s most valuable asset, our citizenry, have noticed that the winds of change have begun to blow and along with these changes we have seen misleading falsehoods, hyperboles and dog whistles to pit the most vulnerable against each other. We, public administrators, share in the same mission as our local police, fire departments and many other service occupations. Instead of dousing house fire, we are called for the noble and glorious purpose of putting out the flames of ignorance before they burn the very foundations of our communities and bring the social cohesion to naught. Instead of proactively seeking to deter crime and respond to human tragedy, we are called for the honorable and outstanding purpose of deterring fear, angst and anxiety; responding to human misfortune and aiding before tragic actions are taken and tragedy incurred. What of honest social conflict? What are the benefits, the dangers? The great Dr. W.E.B. Dubois once wrote, “either ignorance will destroy America or America will destroy ignorance.” We are once again facing this harsh reality. Will we public administrators and policy creators take up our task and perform our duties of governance honorably and in noble nature? I believe we can, and we will.

Something seemed to be unique regarding the election of President Donald Trump. At face value, it may seem that social ties have lessened and that the fabric of social cohesion has been ripped by the seams on his watch. This is, however, far from the truth. In truth, the election of President Barrack Obama was the catalyst of change. The irony of change is that, in societal terms, change is not a process that begins and ends when we want and, as a result, the change implemented by our 44th president has only continued. Change has merely adopted a different champion with different aims and beliefs. Here is where we must begin to have the honest conflict with one another and resist the absurd ideas of dishonest harmony. President Obama infamously misled the American people when he posited, “if you like the plan you have, you can keep it. If you like the doctor you have, you can keep your doctor, too. The only change you’ll see are falling costs as our reforms take hold.” President Trump has infamously misled the American public by stating, “the United States loses 250 billion dollars a year on illegal immigration, not including the terrible drug flow. Top border security, including a wall, is $25 billion. Pays for itself in two months.” These examples do not allow for honest social conflict, but only of a type of disharmony that separates those we are tasked to protect and inform. To revisit Dr. Dubois, ignorance amongst the polity is one thing, ignorance on behalf of the policy framers is something else entirely and poses a tremendous threat. As a result of our reluctance to take on falsehoods, we have allowed, on our watch, a form of tribalism that can and will have detrimental impacts on the country in the future. The impacts of lies that are not opposed by the gatekeepers (policy and public administrators) are well known. Look no further than the tactics shared by Adolf Hitler, “if you tell a big enough lie and tell it frequently enough, it will be believed.”

Despite what we may believe as administrators, our constituencies are able to sense the dire situations in federal government and state government. According to a 2017 US Today poll, only two in ten Americans said they trust government in Washington, D.C. This should not be interpreted as completely negative. There are positive opportunities for local public administrators in this scenario. We are poised to resurrect our relationships with our constituents by operating in the spirit of truth and making noble our aims in the realm of governance. The wisdom of Alexis De Tocqueville serves as a guiding beacon shining and illuminating the path forward for us, public policy administrators, to navigate the ever-treacherous waters of change, falsehood, and frightening uncertainty, “men will not accept truth at the hands of their enemies, and truth is seldom offered to them by their friends.”


Author: Mr. William Clements is a Professor of Criminal Justice and Psychology at higher education institutions. He possesses a Bachelor of Science Degree in Justice Studies, a Master of Science Degree in Forensic Psychology, and he is currently an A.B.D. in Public Policy and Administration and has submitted his full dissertation for approval. He has served in the field of public service for a total of 11 plus years and is a well-read enthusiast for topics of economics, politics, and most of all, public policy. Email: [email protected]

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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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