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November’s Democracy: The Autumn-Spring of 2023

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

By Lisa Saye
November 13, 2023

Spring is nature’s fireworks. Spring anytime is welcomed. Daisies and bumble-bees in November are not particularly new. But, when they emerge together following a cold spell, we rejoice. It’s an event that reminds us that growth is still possible and highly probable under any circumstances. A bloom of daisies surrounding the last post of a dismantled deck is a wonderful metaphor for today’s democracy. No generation really wants to be the one that manages democracy’s remains. To avoid being so, we must remember that democracy is not a political project and that its build takes time, attention and commitment. Democracy imparts a tradition of justice where there is none. It is history’s bookkeeper—always reflective, always paging through the past. It is its own historian serving as the archive of equality and inclusion. It is equality, justice and freedom on repeat and its most substantive output is public service.

Like spring, democracy is still reliable. It knows where and when it is needed. However, spring isn’t magic and neither is democracy. What both offer are forms and structures that we still recognize. These are not side parts of life, but rather are viewed as expected renewals that are both timely and necessary. Spring is positive and enduring. The summit of history’s best recollections of good governments show that democracy’s greatest attributes help to support and maintain the most positive and enduring features of compassionate public administration.

In a democracy, institutional legitimacy is granted authority by a free, active and well-informed citizenry and not the other way around. Good and efficient public service is expected under those conditions and public service serves as the justification for democracy’s continuance. When course correction is needed, a sincere and rigorous checks and balances system is employed, clarifying and aligning the government’s objective realities. These realities must reflect the unselfish aims of the community, mirroring the goals and conditions of unity and stability.

Public service is supposed to make sense. In making sense, it accomplishes what politics cannot because it is the closest to the truth that a policy can get. Public service is wholly non-metric because issue resolution and care is still personal. Where one person loves online license tag renewal, another does not. Public service is the government’s ability to respond to either of these options and to do so equitably. As far as spring movements go, public service is arguably the longest government spring movement in modern history. It has overcome the natural political limits of subjective law-making time and time again. It is where citizens go when there is nowhere else to go.

Democracy is core for overcoming the tense human, social and political divisions within any society. November 2023 is replete with these divisions, but the structure of democracy allows the opportunity for meaningful and sustainable resolution. To ignore the challenges we have before us as public administrators is shun-worthy. Choosing to view society through sepia-colored glasses of the past won’t help us resolve the problems associated with energy, transportation, education, food-insecurity, justice or health. That is not to say that the past cannot be a teacher with lessons for the future. It can be and it is. However, sentiment without contemplation is cognitive paralysis. Public administrators understand that the collective strategy that takes into account individual needs and concerns produces a highly functional democracy whose economy you can grow while you sleep.

Public service ultimately understands that program implementation needs to rise to the satisfaction of the larger good as opposed to the larger impulse. Chatbots and other bots miss this distinction because it is still too human to duplicate. The last vote in the last province of the last city on earth will be cast by hand irregardless of existing technology. That scene is an endearing one.

We may be more breathless today than we have been in years past. But we have enough energy to know that we will be held responsible for the dramatic loss of rights and liberties that used to be indicative of a truly free and equal society. We don’t need a return to how things used to be. We need things to be how they should be. You don’t have to smuggle high-science into a democracy because a real democracy insists on it being there. Where society ends up on the continuum toward democracy is anyone’s guess in the blur of today’s endless starts, restarts and debates. I am not enough of a philosopher to know that answer so I would encourage you to draw your own conclusions, but use an eraser.

The @NovemberSpring image was taken by Gerald Tribbitt and titled by Lisa Saye. Used with permission.

Author: Dr. Lisa Saye served as Fulbright Specialist in Phnom Penh, Cambodia and as International Consultant for the United Nations Development Program in The Maldives. She also served as Chair of the Division of Social Sciences and Humanities and as Associate Professor of Public Administration at American University Afghanistan. Dr. Saye can be reached by email at [email protected].

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