Many Americans appear to be thoroughly discouraged by the state of our public life. Not only does it look like we’ve lost faith in the systems meant to help us solve collective problems; worse, we seem to have lost faith in our fellow citizens. Almost 60 percent of us have little or no confidence in the American people’s ability to make political decisions. More, our commitment to democracy is eroding: Over 40 percent of Biden voters and over 50 percent of Trump voters think it may be time to split up America.
We shouldn’t be either sentimental about the way things were or pollyannish about the way things could be. In an extraordinarily diverse nation spanning a continent, there will always be different priorities and value systems. And America’s commitment to liberty and democracy means our different opinions will collide in the public square. Our politics will always be messy. But “messy” is different from believing that our opponents are enemies and America can’t get things done.
The problem, however, is not that democracy is broken or our challenges too big or those with views different from ours are wicked. Instead, the problem is that much of today’s political discourse is misleading us about our state of affairs, making us believe that things are far worse than in fact they are. Too many people who lead public conversations intentionally spotlight niche conflicts and all but ignore the positive news about American governing and American public servants.
This isn’t a particularly novel argument. The old saw, “If it bleeds, it leads,” captures both the public’s attraction to frightening news and the eagerness of journalists and commentators to provide it. What isn’t discussed nearly enough, however, is that there’s no natural countervailing force: For a very particular reason, those best positioned to tell the other side of the story don’t do so. The reason is that the public leaders most responsible for governing well are the least likely to talk about what they do. As a result, we’re force-fed reasons to believe things are falling apart and starved of reasons to be proud and optimistic about American governance. We’re left with a distorted sense of public life. It undermines faith in America, its institutions, and our fellow citizens.
Every day, countless smart, able public servants get important things accomplished. But they go about their duties quietly, not in ways that garner attention. They understand that they won’t be successful if they demonize those with differing views, publicly insult colleagues, or run to the cameras to brag about their achievements. In other words, the successes in American public life generally happen without fanfare. They are the result of decent people behaving civilly—people more concerned about responsibility, service, and problem-solving than clicks and self-promotion.
They are civil servants in Washington agencies, career military, federal prosecutors, and many more. You’ll never know their names, because they don’t seek fame; they do accomplish immeasurable good for our nation. But much of America’s best public service takes place at the state and local levels. That’s where budgets are balanced, transportation projects completed, health systems improved, and libraries renovated. This work is seldom even mentioned by those who lead discussions of public affairs.
For every fiery public comment session in front of a local school board (and you will hear about it for weeks on end), there are thousands of decisions made by those boards and administrators related to improving school facilities, instruction, and professional development. You probably won’t hear a word about successful negotiations in state legislative committees concerning criminal justice, apprenticeships, or community colleges; you won’t read about a town council solving a public housing problem or a county commission resolving a dispute between local environmental and agriculture communities. But you can’t get away from the video of protestors heckling a U.S. Senator while she’s trying to use the restroom.
It is high time to understand that we’re victims of a form of gaslighting. When cable news programs give air time to intemperate advocates and inflammatory congressional backbenchers with no legislative accomplishments, we get a false impression of the nature of actual governing. When talk radio and podcasts relentlessly cover radioactive sideshows and ignore matters that are important but quotidian, they paint a wildly inaccurate picture of public life. When opinion pages focus on national theater and give column inches to imprudent writers who lack both governing experience and knowledge of state and local affairs, we get a funhouse-mirror version of public policy.
There are structural reasons why this distortion has come about. For instance, the staggering loss of local and regional newspapers has directed our eyes away from healthy, effective, close-to-home institutions and toward dramatic, distant, dysfunctional ones; it is no surprise that only 24 percent of Americans trust Washington to do the right thing all or most of the time, while 69 percent say they are frustrated or angry at the federal government. Social media enable a provocative, one-off incident to go viral, misleading people into believing that madness and threats abound.
We should not allow any of this to convince us that alarmist chyrons, cataclysm-selling columnists, or frenzied, attention-seeking officials accurately reflect American public life. There is much more to our system of self-government than manufactured squabbles in Washington, fights over political messages on dresses or jackets, and intra-party interpersonal spats.
Over the last seven years, I’ve had the good fortune to serve on three significant state-level boards. Before that, I—like many other Americans—was inordinately focused on national events and Washington’s circus. I was demoralized and frustrated. But my recent state experiences have not just buoyed my spirits but reminded me of the value and gratification of public service. It is energizing to work alongside public-spirited citizens who want to solve problems and use their positions to get things done. I’ve probably lost more important votes than I’ve won; but the seriousness and civility of the discussions and the decency of those involved demonstrate that republican virtue is alive and well.
It is Important that in these discussions, as well as similar cases throughout America every single day, no one took to Twitter, Instagram, or Facebook to demean a colleague. No one ran to a camera to claim victory or undermine the process. No one was brand-building or fame-chasing. Instead, people served quietly and honorably. This behavior is what makes future thoughtful, productive deliberations possible. But it’s also the reason why few people know that good things are happening in so many public institutions. Those doing real work and doing it well aren’t behaving in ways that will go viral or get themselves a booking call from a cable news show.
We should constantly bear in mind that state and local governments are the beating heart of American politics. They spend more than $3 trillion annually, more than the amount of federal discretionary spending. They spend most of their revenue on the issues that touch our daily lives, like welfare, education, and health. Moreover, Americans trust local institutions like public schools and the police far more than they trust Congress; and they trust their local and state governments more than they do the federal government. Yet we’re inundated with stories about a junior Congressperson’s incendiary press release or a Senator’s hectoring of a hearing witness.
I hope for institutional reforms that will redirect attention to closer-to-home matters and examples of governing success. Such changes, in turn, will require big changes in the way media outlets staff themselves, what the commentary class focuses on, how social media algorithms are written, and much more.
In the meantime, let’s find ways to remind Americans that great public servants in institutions across the nation quietly do noble, productive work every day. We should remember that Washington’s theater is a warped depiction of American public life. By giving disproportionate attention to inside-the-Beltway antics, we undermine the public’s faith in our institutions and our neighbors.
Andy Smarick is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute. He has worked in eight government entities at the federal and state level.
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