It wasn’t just Donald Trump. For a number of years, Americans have been electing “celebrities”–actors and people famous for being famous–to government positions from mayors (Clint Eastwood) to governors (Arnold Schwarzenegger) to (most recently and unfortunately) President.
When Kanye West can announce a presidential campaign with a straight face, Caitlin Jenner assures people that knowing nothing about government qualifies her to govern California, and Matthew McConaughey is touted as a viable candidate for governor of Texas, the trend is hard to dismiss (although alcohol helps).
This willingness of voters to put people with absolutely no government experience into positions of authority is troubling on numerous levels, but what drives me absolutely bonkers is the lack of understanding of the day-to-day responsibilities of governance that the phenomenon represents, and the message it sends to less-famous candidates for public office, who have come to focus on public performance rather than attending to the unexciting “grunt work” of governing.
Indiana provides a case in point. (Well, okay, several. But today, I just want to focus on one.)
While our legislators are busy pontificating about abortion, vaccination, the Second Amendment, protecting developers from the need to protect wetlands, and awarding ever-increasing amounts of public funds to private religious schools, they are paying far less attention to basic governance issues like ordinary citizens’ ability to access the rules and regulations with which they are expected to comply.
Toward the end of my academic life, I served as a very informal consultant for a project undertaken by Professor Ross Silverman and several colleagues. Silverman’s research required that he collect the laws of Indiana’s counties, and his results were published as a research methods piece in the American Journal of Public Health.
Silverman is a Professor of Public Health & Law, and he holds a joint appointment at IU’s Fairbanks School of Public Health and the McKinney School of Law. As he noted in an email announcing publication of the research,
During our process we discovered that nearly half of all Indiana counties either do not publish their ordinances and regulations online or have only partial or out of date materials available electronically. As you also know, there’s no law requiring electronic publication or a central repository either.
To acquire these documents meant we drove 1000s of miles & scanned 25000+ pages ourselves at County government offices dotted around the state.
We were most interested in the laws that may have an effect on the lives of people with substance use disorders, but once we got to see the primary source materials, we found they were usually kept in 3 ring binders organized by passage date, not topic, so there’s no quick way to pick out the relevant documents.
These types of obstacles and labor costs makes it very challenging to conduct statewide intrastate policy analysis, maintain up to date data, or even know your local laws.
Leaving aside the impediment to analysis this lack of a system represents, citizens’ ability to access the rules they must obey is a basic tenet of the rule of law.
How do we expect citizens to obey laws of which they are unaware? Why–in the age of the Internet–are ordinances not routinely digitized, categorized and made available online? Why–in a state like Indiana where “home rule” is a joke–can’t the members of the Indiana General Assembly pass a law requiring local units of government to make their rules accessible?
Granted, sponsorship of such a measure wouldn’t offer an opportunity for posturing, of appealing to a particular voting or donor constituency, or otherwise enhancing a politico’s name recognition, but it would certainly improve governance in a state that–to put it charitably–is not noted for excellence in that department.
Even Mussolini understood the importance–and political benefit–of making the trains run on time….