Still In For Public Service in the Trump Era?

[Cover image: This is Denison graduate Ben Hobbs who now works for the Domestic Policy Council, which is the primary domestic policy review and advising body of the Executive Office of the President in the Trump White House. It’s a high honor to work there and we’re proud of Ben for this achievement.]

By Paul A. Djupe

In the past couple of years, public service has taken a beating. Trump campaigned on “draining the swamp” (he was referring to the federal bureaucracy), and since taking office he has attempted to do just that by shrinking the public workforce by legislation, simply failing to appoint many posts, and urging policies so odious to the federal workforce that they just up and quit. The State department has been particularly hard hit from this combined strategy, so that it is now functioning with about 12% fewer employees, including most of the career senior staff. The message seems clear that this sort of service – really service of any kind – is not desired or needed.[1]

I thought that Trump’s election would demoralize Democrats in particular, driving them away from thinking that public service professions would be fulfilling and viable career paths. I wrote a piece in April, 2017 using March 2017 data (at the start of Trump bulldozing the federal workforce), which suggested that Denison students had not really made that connection yet, but that they could be primed to make it. Having them consider Trump’s election caused them to reevaluate and devalue public service. But, overall, they were pretty chipper about public service. Given time, that outlook would sour, I thought.

Are the same dynamics in play in the fall of 2018? In our survey just before the midterm election, we asked the same question as March 2017: “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. What is your counsel? In your opinion, will this lead to a fulfilling career or not?” We did not repeat the experiment, but the question followed a slew of political questions and of course it was a few days before the election. Politics was “chronically accessible” then.

The figure below compares responses to that question from March 2017 and October 2018. The results from the two surveys are remarkably similar and the averages line up as well (3.7 on a 1-5 scale, just below “fulfilling”). However, there are a few signs that students are polarizing a bit – a few more say that public service would be “very fulfilling” while some more indicated such a career would be unfulfilling. Fewer said “neither” in October 2018. So, who moved?

The most obvious place to search for variation is in partisanship. Since we are living under a Republican Administration, it would seem like Democrats would turn away from public service. On the flip side, the people demonizing public service are Republicans (not unanimously, mind you), so maybe Republicans are souring on public service.

The figure below breaks out the fulfillment of public service by a standard 7 point partisanship scale. The March 2017 results showed a small disparity so that Republicans thought public service would be more fulfilling than Democrats did. Republicans were buoyant while independents, not surprisingly, had the lowest scores – they’re not invested in these sorts of questions.

By October 2018, however, attitudes about public service had changed considerably. Now, Democrats were the most dewy-eyed about serving the public, while Republicans’ sense of fulfillment had waned. That is highlighted in the striking decline seen among strong Republicans (that’s just under a 20% drop).

A lot of things could be driving these shifts. It’s hard to discount The Blue Wave of 2018, where Democratic enthusiasm was high, catalyzed by a huge new and diverse candidate roster running and lots of anger toward Trump Administration policies. Moreover, it’s also hard to ignore the rhetoric from the Republican leader, both as a cue to followers that public service is undesirable and as a cue to opponent Democrats that it must be valuable if Trump doesn’t like it. Partisanship is a powerful drug.

As I noted in my last post, there are some worrisome partisan trends among students, at least in the long term. I’m not worried that students are walking away from Trump’s Republican Party given its anti-democratic commitments, but in the long run one political group turning away from higher education is a disaster in waiting (if you don’t believe me, see American religion). In the same way, if one political party continues to turn its back on public service, we face the hollowing out of public administration and the rise of political incentives to attack public servants when out of the majority. If this pattern intensifies, and there are signs it is, we could see a potential death spiral of the very idea of “the public” that has so animated the United States at its best moments.

Paul A. Djupe is a local artisan graph maker and aspiring Alps-ascending cyclist who settles for the Welsh Hills. He is known to offer classes in the political science department and for sending out surveys.


Note

1. Here’s an interview with Michael Lewis, author of a good, very current take on Trump’s approach to the bureaucracy and its dangers; the book is called The Fifth Risk.

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