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Pushing Back Against Democratic Decline

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

By Michael R. Ford
June 22, 2021

In a 2017 book Don Kettl posed a simple poignant question; Can government earn the trust of the governed? The question was nothing new in Public Administration (PA). In fact, it has long been at the heart of our field’s legitimacy challenge. A government that lacks the trust of the people will be ineffective at best, and unsustainable at worst. As serious as distrust in government is, a more specific (and I think more difficult) challenge has emerged in the United States: the erosion of faith in democratic governance.

As an older millennial, I came of age in the heady days when it was assumed that political development was a one-way path towards democracy. I was assigned The End of History and the Last Man as a political science major, and I bought the argument because it matched what I was experiencing. It did not take too long to realize I was naive, yet the permanency of democracy in the United States still seemed a given. Even during the stresses of the Clinton impeachment, 9/11 and the wars that followed and finally Trump’s testing of democratic institutions, our core collective belief in democracy seemed certain.

Then came January 6th.

The insurrection at the United States Capitol was both shocking and revealing. The initial shock was visceral…what is that crowd doing, how are they getting past security, how can this be happening? The lasting shock was the lifting of the veneer of democracy’s permeance. The insurrection was an attempt to stop the certification of legitimate election results for the purposes of stopping a democratic transition of power. In other words January 6th was an attempted coup. It was an attack on both the United States Constitution, and on democracy itself.

The revealing part of January 6th is that a non-trivial portion of the country seems ok with the attack on democracy. My hometown Senator, Ron Johnson, continues to downplay the insurrection, lying about what occurred that day. A slight majority of Republicans believe that Donald Trump is the legitimate president of the United States, reality notwithstanding. Three in ten Republicans believe that Donald Trump will be reinstated this summer. Further, the Arizona election audit, as well as the quixotic election investigations in multiple states, show the willingness of some elected officials to use the power of government to attack the very idea of democracy.

We are in dangerous territory. How do we in the PA community push back against the danger? I think it begins by asserting that PA is a normative field, and that norm is liberal democracy. As Alasdair Roberts articulates so well, we cannot simply “sidestep” the difficult large political questions in the name of efficient management. I believe we do have the framework to push back in the form of our social equity pillar. But, for many (including more in the field of PA than we care to admit) equity remains a buzzword, a periphery concept easily dismissed as less important than the nuts and bolts work of professional management. I have witnessed many practitioners describe social equity as a luxury to be discussed only when the important issues are addressed. Worse yet, I have seen practitioners avoid social equity on the grounds that is a divisive social issue suited to politics rather than governance.

But social equity is democracy. It is the idea that every single resident has a stake, and a voice, in their government. As a field we must proactively seek to understand all those voices. In research, this means celebrating descriptive work, taking perceptions seriously and understanding the limits of administrative data. To put it another way, we cannot afford to take the human experience out of PA research in the name of rigor. Yes, human beings are often irrational and inconsistent, two traits that are not conducive to generalizable research. But democracy is a human-driven enterprise, be it rational or irrational.

The next step is calling things out for what they are. As Trochmann, Viswanath, Puello and Larson recently wrote, there is a need to, “Dispel any notion of a gray area,” around questions of equity and fairness. One actionable way to do so is by incorporating equity as a core performance measure in government across departments and functions. Such a step makes equity the dominant value in everything government does. And if equity is not the dominant value, what is? Rejecting equity implicitly means accepting that other values matter more than democracy. It creates space for our worse anti-democratic principles, the promotion of subjective truths and the elevation of ill-defined cultural issues over representative government. We in PA cannot allow that to happen.  


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 as the president of the Midwest Public Affairs Conference, and as an elected member of the Oshkosh, WI Common Council.

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