In our nano-second news cycle, message-tested-to-death public square, we place too much importance on the meaning of election outcomes. On the May 18 NBC Meet the Press, the pundits were talking mid-term elections. Chuck Todd observed that malaise and apathy were sweeping the electorate. He opined that "the people have given up on Washington," and this attitude shift would affect the 2014 mid-term elections.
I beg to differ, Chuck. We the People have given up on Congress. We the People have given up on the process. But, We the People believe in government that protects us, promotes our national interest, and reflects our national values. Yes, we have a seemingly bitter feud about how to operationalize government's role. But, except for the far fringes of our society, no one is suggesting elimination of government. Sure, according to the rhetoric in Congress, and the media coverage of that rhetoric, you'd be forgiven for thinking the very existence of the federal government is at stake. Get out of Washington and you hear a different story.
The sensible center (i.e., the vast majority of us who are neither ideological partisans nor professional spinners) are losing our sense of agency in the fray. Given an opportunity for relevant input into how to deliver government services, how to make tough trade-offs about what services to offer in these lean times, and what good service accomplishes for the greater good, we'd jump into activism. But, when all our national leaders ever do is position to obstruct their ideological opponents or re-argue whether or not government should exist, we have no incentive to participate.
Rather than obsessing about the meaning of this election or the next, I think our elected officials and the media should focus on where the rubber hits the road, that is, the front lines where roads are planned and built, homeless are housed, air traffic is controlled, and garbage is removed. Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio are learning that lesson everyday. Both successful national policy wonks, they've had to face the complex reality of improving government service, which requires less grandstanding and more focus on getting stuff done well. Look at how quickly de Blasio dropped his campaign pledge to eliminate charter schools' access to public school buildings. And, Emanuel's current dip in the polls has a lot to do with his lack of attention to making sure services are experienced as better, not just declared better.
It's time to take our government back from the fringes. It's time for us to do our part to make sure our public services are cost-effective, efficient and meet our communal needs: smooth roads, reliable public transit, schools that teach necessary skills. So, let's stop paying so much attention to reading election tea leaves. Let's spend more time paying attention to authentic front-line experiences and perspectives on the quality of government services.