Has Commitment to Public Service Weakened in the Trump Era?

By Paul A. Djupe

Once upon a time, public servants held public esteem and in some case, like John F. Kennedy, even were seen to have served with panache.  Arguably that time has passed – public approval of Congress has all but dried up, trust in the federal government to do what’s right has faded to a small minority, and the number of jobs in government has dwindled even as public problems have grown. And some argue that we are in a profoundly narcissistic age, which seems incompatible with public service.

Into this mix was thrown Donald Trump, who came from behind to take the presidency riding a vehicle of anti-institutionalism in all its forms, both domestic (e.g., shutter the EPA) and foreign (e.g., NATO has outlived its usefulness). Trump holds the most disapproval at this point in his term than any president in polling history.

Would you find public service fulfilling in this environment?

We asked Denison students just that in a March 2017 survey: “Your friend has asked for your advice about whether it is a good idea to get a job in the public sector – working for government, public schools, or the military. In your opinion, will this lead to a fulfilling career or not?”[1] Sixty-six percent responded that they would tell their friend such a career would be fulfilling (52) or very fulfilling (14); 25 percent were non-committal, while only 9% suggested it would be unfulfilling.

The survey contained an experiment where we varied the question order. Some were asked the public service question first, while others were asked the public service question after answering several questions about the current political climate (their vote choice in 2016, assessments about the direction of the country, approval of the president, etc.). This served to “prime” the state of the nation, which means to make politics salient to those respondents. Since only 8-9% approve of the job the president is doing, this served to prime a fairly dismal state. The effect of the “political priming” was substantial – it dropped expressed fulfillment with public service by about 8 percent as the figure below shows.

political priming effect

The experiment did not affect everyone equally. Public service is almost synonymous with altruism. While there is good money to be made in public sector jobs, it surely does not pay as well as some corporate positions. We captured altruism with a commonly used measure called a “dictator game.” In the game, participants are awarded money (in this case, “100 Denison bucks”) and are then asked if they would like to donate a portion of the award to someone, usually an anonymous someone. The mean proportion in the Denison sample was 38 percent, which is in line with other results from the general population.[2] This question was asked just before the public service question.

Priming politics had a deleterious effect on the fulfillment of those most likely to engage in public service – the altruistic (those who gave more back in their dictator game play). In the figure, there was a strong, positive influence of altruism on public service fulfillment when those questions were asked first (blue line). When they answered political questions first, however, the altruistic dropped the perceived fulfillment of public service so they were no different than the non-altruistic (red line).

politics weakens altruism

But that’s not all. Despite all of the protest from the left against the multifaceted attack on public institutions and minorities by the Trump Administration, liberal students show a lack of resolve. The simple reminder of the politics of the time drives down the fulfillment liberals express for public service by more than 10 percent. Moreover, the results are notable for the equal fulfillment that liberals AND conservatives express for public sector jobs.

politics weakens liberalsSome surprising other findings include: Public service is seen as a bit more fulfilling among men (by 3.5%), by stronger partisans by 5% over independents), by those with strong social support networks,[3] and by those who exercise more leadership skills on campus. Those who experience more discrimination indicate they would find public service somewhat less fulfilling (about 10% less across the full range).

We shouldn’t get too carried away with these findings – the default setting is still that public service is seen as fulfilling. But, together, the results indicate that there are long term implications of a dysfunctional public sector. However, federal politics has been polarized for a long time now and Denison students still see public service as viable, which is not a wrong conclusion to draw. What appears to buoy support for service is a robust civil society – the set of relationships and organizational experiences that helps you to see collective action as fulfilling in service of people who treat you well. Of course, this is one strong component of a Denison education and why we all should see discriminatory actions as having deleterious, long term effects beyond the hill.

Paul Djupe is a local cyclist who happens to have taught political science at Denison since the Harry Potter series was published. You can learn more about his work at pauldjupe.com.


1. In the March 2017 survey there were 580 respondents, it was a bit too female (65%), had a near accurate percent white (73%), and had a relatively even spread among class years.

2. In research with Dr. Mike Brady published in 2016 in Interest Groups and Advocacy, we found that a sample of American adults would donate 34% of their awards to an interest group working on health care that none of them had heard of before. Also, Camerer (2003) suggests average donations from dictator games typically fall between 20-40%.

3. My Analyzing class also found a link between those who party in the Sunnies and public service fulfillment, but this effect is actually a function of having a strong social support network (and, side note, it has nothing to do with class year).

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