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Sticks and Stones

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

By Anna Marie Schuh
July 14, 2023

A friend recently asked me about the negativism against public employees. He said that he had not noticed the hostility until lately and wondered how people in the public sector felt about it. I responded that when I worked for the government, I assumed that people were generally negative about government; however, violence was never part of my assumption. Our discussion got me thinking about the entire issue of the American people’s love-hate relationship with government and whether it is changing.

As a child, I remember my parents and grandparents making negative comments about public employees. At the same time, they were complimentary about their local postal worker and other public employees they knew as individuals. For example, I remember my mother telling me how helpful the social security representative was when my mother had to make changes after my father’s death. When I reminded my mother that the social security representative was a federal employee, she responded: “That’s different!”

My family’s negative attitude toward public sector employees is typical. Only 1 in 4 Americans trust their government. While this percentage is consistent with the international trust average, this has not always been the American pattern. American trust in government has been higher, but has degraded over the last seventy years. Some of the change is explained by scandals (e.g., Watergate, Abu Ghraib) and some is explained by other crises (e.g., financial downturn, mismanagement of Hurricane Katrina). However, those situations do not explain the dichotomy between attitudes toward government employees generally and government employees individually. One explanation of this dichotomy comes from a study by the Public Affairs Council  that notes American attitudes toward government typically involve non-personal sources with personal experiences playing a small role. Essentially, we evaluate government employees on what we hear and read, and our postal worker on what we experience.

Non-personal sources that affect our attitudes toward government workers include historical perspectives, political rhetoric and media. Research supports the notion that some part of our political perspective comes from our parents and many of these perspectives are handed down from our families over generations. More specifically, some negative American attitudes date back to the American revolution. The colonists had a lot of reasons for grievances against British officials—reasons that included taxes, corruption and housing British soldiers. Colonial ancestors passed down stories about corrupt public officials to their offspring. Americans who are not descended from revolutionaries have also learned this history and often carry their own stories about corrupt officials from their countries of origin.

Besides history, non-personal sources include political rhetoric and the news media. More recently, some presidents have campaigned against government, e.g., Carter, Reagan, Trump. Unfortunately, negative political campaign rhetoric about government with its resultant news media coverage has been increasing. In turn, while violence against government workers has always been high because of the nature of the work, the current negative rhetoric and coverage has led to increased violence, particularly against those in agencies with law enforcement or election management responsibilities. Unfortunately, as violence has increased, so has American support for violence.

The first time I realized that I could be a target of violence as a government employee was when I watched the granite barriers being placed around the federal building in which I worked. This was shortly after the Oklahoma City bombing on April 19, 1995. At that point, the risk was being part of a group of government workers. However, with the impetus of social media, the violence has both increased and become individual.

As a result, I have changed my assumptions about government employment. When I was a government worker, I told myself that potential violence came with the job and there was no need to worry about it. I now believe that violence cannot be an assumed part of working for the government because violence affects the quality of governance that citizens receive. More specifically, recruitment of quality candidates becomes difficult when  interest in government work declines and the threat of violence becomes prevalent. Stress from potential violence also affects government employee performance.

As a former government employee, I cannot stop the violence. However, as a citizen, I can call on elected officials, candidates and the media to stop the political rhetoric that fosters violence. As a voter, I can vote against candidates and elected officials who use the political rhetoric of violence. As a consumer, I can avoid media which highlights that violence.

As children, many of us learned the nursery rhyme ”Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words shall never hurt me.” Historically, government employees in the United States have accepted the reality of negative words assuming the words would not hurt them. However, the negative words are now being turned into the sticks and stones of violence. This problem will only be solved when those who foster the use of sticks and stones change their rhetoric. All of us must work to encourage this change.

Author: Anna Marie Schuh is currently an Associate Professor and the MPA Program Director at Roosevelt University in Chicago where she teaches political science and public administration. She retired from the federal government after 36 years. Her last federal assignment involved management of the Office of Personnel Management national oversight program. Email: [email protected]; Twitter: profschuh.

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