Thursday, November 24, 2016

So I Guess Just Call Me "Swamp Thing" OR The Beltway's Best and Brightest

It's not original for me to point out that a large sector of the American public was feeling pretty punk this election season. Donald Trump ran and won on a platform of overturning the establishment. #DrainTheSwamp was a major theme of Trump’s campaign and became one of the most used hashtags of 2016. Clearly, a large sector of the American public is tired of what they see as a corrupt, elite, snobbish status quo in DC that isolates decision making from the will of the American public. This idea is by no means new. In fact it's basically the same general idea that punk music has been blaring about since the 1970s.  You know it’s a pretty odd election when the GOP nominee ends up sounding a lot like Pennywise during his stump speech.

The idea of the DC swamp is an interesting and complicated one in the American perspective and in reality. A large portion of the public perceives the foreign policy decision-making process as controlled by a detached class of bourgeois, academic, elites that have little or no perspective on what the life of the average American is like. Within this perception, there doesn't appear to be much of an understanding among the public about how the process actually works:  the input of think tanks, experienced professional diplomats, and national security experts, as well as a lot of insider baseball influence from the specialized media outlets that report on foreign policy.

Something really interesting happened with media coverage in the past few years. Polarization in the social sphere of American politics really became highlighted during this election season.  It's certainly not a new trend, but it's definitely become more pronounced. This is well demonstrated in a Wall Street Journal project that illustrates how news events appear in the social media feeds of people who like conservative news publications versus people who like liberal news publications. The image that develops from this project is that Americans are not just choosing the news they want, they're choosing the facts they want and basing their ideas about what's happening in the world based on a set of facts that may or may not reflect reality, but do reflect what the want to see.

I understand this perspective. I come from the same socio-economic background where this idea tends to be the most prevalent. My family is low income, rural, and I am a first-generation college graduate. During holiday get-togethers such as this Thanksgiving, I frequently get ribbed in a half-joking manner about my aspiration to join the swamp in DC: “Why in the world would you wanna be an empty-shirt pencil pusher on the taxpayer dime when you can do real work with real people? Why join the liar’s club with the greasy-haired yuppies and the fat-cat doctors’ kids? You just wanna feel like a big shot in your suit and tie so you don’t feel like the white trash you came from.”

Screen Shot 2016-11-24 at 2.23.22 PM.pngSo I get it, OK? I do. There is a definite disconnect and cultural gap between those who contribute to the decision-making in DC and those who live outside that exclusive club. And it’s quite plausible that there’s an attitude of arrogance and self-righteousness among the policy elite that doesn't help ease these tensions. Author Jennifer Close recently wrote an excellent satirical novel about this culture called The Hopefuls. In the novel, Close highlights the cliquish social events attended by 20-something ladder climbers in the Beltway and the exclusive jargon they use to distinguish themselves from the plebeians below. The book captures the perception and some of the realities of the policy elite perfectly.

So obviously there’s a divide here. Whether this divide is in perception alone makes no difference. There is clearly a problem that has to be addressed. A bridge has to be built. The US has to create some structure, either cultural or formal in nature, that allows the American public to feel more connected to the decision making process. So here's my pitch of one facet of a potential solution, and forgive me if it's cringe-worthy or cheesy.

People from backgrounds like mine need to go into public service at higher rates. Public service jobs are largely filled with people who come from backgrounds with middle or higher income parents with some college education. That class of people reflects only a portion of American society, and it is the less-educated and lower-income portion of American society that has felt left out in recent years and that helped contribute to Trump's recent win. I also understand that this is no easy task. Problems of educational access, the importance education is given by lower-income families, and problems of practical costs are all barriers here. But the flat-out reality here is that if we're going to address the issue of such a large sector of the American public feeling left behind, we're gonna have to figure out a way to include them in the policy discussions. And including their kids among the ranks of the people we hire to research and advise policymakers is a good start. It'll contribute a diversity of backgrounds, ideas, and perspectives to policy, which is exactly what this sector of the American public seems to be clamoring for.

No comments: