The Root of the Problem

Paul Volcker is a longtime, widely respected public servant. Most of us know of him through his service as head of the Federal Reserve, but his interest in good government is wider than fiscal policy. That interest has led him to create a new organization–the Volcker Alliance. This new initiative has grown out of what is described as Volcker’s deep concern about public mistrust of government, partisan polarization, and the low level of status/prestige associated with career public service in the United States.

I share his concerns. And I hope that the Volcker Alliance will focus upon the roots of the problem.

Any reader of this blog can probably guess what my analysis of our current situation is.  I am absolutely convinced that public administration practice–the daily decisions of the elected and appointed people who run government at all levels– take place in a culture that has been shaped by  American constitutional, legal, and political values.  Public decisions and actions must be seen as consistent with those values in order for citizens to  trust them.

One of the reasons I am so concerned (okay, maybe obsessed) about civic literacy is that I firmly believe the electorate must be sufficiently knowledgable about our national principles/values to make accurate judgments about their elected officials’ compliance with them.

Our constitutional values create the framework for moral decision-making in the public sector. Public confidence that policymakers are guided by them is an essential element of perceived legitimacy–and the electorate’s belief in the legitimacy of governing institutions is a precondition to the ability of public managers to govern at all.

I teach at a school of public affairs, so I obviously believe in that it is important for our public administrators to have the requisite skills to implement chosen policies. But even the most able technocrat can’t function properly without legitimacy: public acceptance of his role and his right to exercise authority.

If I am correct about that (and there is a good deal of scholarship suggesting that I am) then the widespread belief that public officials are just beneficiaries of political gamesmanship–gerrymandering, vote suppression, etc.–is corrosive of the public’s confidence and undermines the public manager’s ability to do her job.

Let me suggest a somewhat weird analogy.

In Florence, Italy, in one of that city’s many museums, there is a famous marble statue of two men wrestling. One of them has his hands around the testicles of the other, and ever since we first saw  it, my husband has always referred to it as the  ”fight fair, dammit” statue.

A functioning democracy depends on the citizenry’s confidence that the “fight” was fair.  The idea is that we contend in the public arena for the support of the voters; we make our respective cases, our voices are heard and our arguments considered, and citizens choose whom they prefer in a fair election, after which, we come together and work with the people the voters freely chose.

If the election wasn’t fair–if boatloads of special-interest money drowned out the voices of certain candidates, if one party or the other abused the redistricting process, or gamed the system to dissuade some constituencies from voting–the winners cannot expect the losers to cheerfully abide by the results. People who use these tactics may win elections, but they lose legitimacy and the public trust.

If we want to restore public trust in our government, we need to fight fair, dammit.


  1. our culture has become so unreflective that the notion of a fair fight/ debate or god-fobid a conversation is not possible. it is my opinion that tenure needs to be revoked and that our leaders need to again learn to lead – if war is necessary then our leaders send their children first. if health care reform is necessary then they too participate in the program without loopholes for themselves and their families… i propose a three term limit for all public servants – one term to learn the game – one term to work the game – a final term to share what was learned and accomplished – then back to being a taxpayer of the common variety. I personally wonder about many of the women of the game – their pandering is so distressing to my sensibilties that I often wonder if their skirts are indeed covering a big penis that we don’t see, especially the TN women…. an abomination in my opinion.
    I enjoy reading your thoughts -thank you for your words.

  2. It’s tough to let that statement about TN women just sit there without reply. We are anything but an “abomination”. Please don’t sweep all of us into the category with that one particular Republican woman in the House of Representatives.

    Tennessee women are proud, strong defenders of hearth, home, and the Constitution. But wait, there’s more: We are mothers, educators, therapists, counselors, bankers, school crossing guards, attorneys, dentists, doctors, nurses, technologists, lawmakers, CEO’s, CFO’s, caregivers, musicians, and workers in every service industry you can possibly imagine. In many cases, we make far less money than our counterparts who are equipped with the aforementioned appendages.

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