Why in the world would anyone enter public service in 2021?
After all, the scenes have become familiar: someone shaking with rage approaches the lectern. They start by berating the local school board or town council for following public health advice. Then, the conspiracy theories begin. Ordinary citizens serving their communities are accused of being part of a deep state plot or being in the service of dark, unseen paymasters. And then, after the microphones and the lights are switched off, some come home to death threats in their email inboxes or on their voicemails. They fear for their safety.
Even the local public servants who have been spared these harrowing abuses are fully aware of the obvious risk: that their turn may come next. School board leaders used to be kept up at night by tussles with the local teachers union. Now, some credibly fear that they and their families could be targeted because they tried to follow science, public health and evidence.
The polarization that characterizes so much of American society has seeped into even the smallest stages for power. In a trickle-down effect, the vitriol of state and national politics has reached the local level. And that unfortunate development will have a profound influence on the kinds of people who become the next generation of our leaders.
As I found in my research, some people are drawn to power more than others, like moths to an irresistible flame. Power-hungry people are more likely to put themselves forward to rule, the same way that tall kids are more likely to sign up for the school basketball team . This is most pronounced for positions where glory, fame and riches usually follow, such as national-level politics.
Thankfully, this has been less of a problem with school boards and other (often thankless) local public service posts that come with a small paycheck, if there’s any compensation at all. As a result, people who are drawn to service rather than power usually balance out the power-hungry jerks at the local level. The few driven by ideology and power are offset by the many motivated by community and service. The bad apples don’t take over the bunch.
In 2021, that dynamic may be changing. Put yourself in the shoes of a concerned parent or committed citizen who is thinking about running for local office to make the schools better or to improve public safety. Now, it’s not just about the time commitment or the fundraising, but you also have to contemplate the possibility of death threats, anonymous abuse online, even people harassing you and your family outside your home.
Such considerations, long recognized at the national level, rarely carried over to community involvement. That dividing line has become blurred.
What does that mean for American communities? To find the answer, it’s instructive to look at the extremes, in places where politics has been even more toxic than it currently is in the United States.
In the 1850s, William “Boss” Tweed ran the Tammany Hall political corruption ring. The Tweed machine used violence and intimidation to ensure victory. Unless you were one of Tweed’s corrupt cronies, running for office became far less appealing because it came with the serious risk of financial ruin or violence. Anyone interested in virtuous public service simply bowed out.
Or take Thailand, for example. It’s a place where civilian politicians are regularly overthrown by generals in military coups d’état. Candidates who say the wrong thing end up in prison, their assets confiscated. As one promising member of Thailand’s elite put it to me during a recent research trip, “Why would I go into public service? That’s where you lose everything.”
That viewpoint is widespread and the consequence is predictable: talented, good people stay far away from politics. This effect exists anywhere politics is a dangerous, potentially costly game to play. At the local level in particular, any elevated risks quickly render public service unattractive. The mayor of Dodge City, Kansas, (population 27,000) for instance, resigned because she was receiving too many death threats.
If threats and abuse become a normalized part of school district and town council meetings, then the people who step forward for those posts in the future are more likely to be focused on power or, worse, to be sympathetic to those peddling conspiracies and making threats. Good people will simply do something else.
This dynamic can happen even in small groups such as local homeowners associations, or HOAs, that govern community functions and rules. Residents who volunteer to be on HOA committees usually do so grudgingly because someone has to do it. But others relish having authority and use the power to control others. That’s why there are so many stories of HOA abuse and bullying. When community-oriented people don’t want power, the worst can waltz right into those posts instead, to the collective detriment.
Don’t believe me? QAnon supporters are organizing and planning to run for school boards. Instead of just a brain drain, in which intelligent people flee, the arena of America’s local public service is also facing a new threat: a sane drain, in which delusional zealots step in to take the place of reality-based candidates.
Videos of people abusing local public servants should worry all of us. And unless we reduce the toxicity and make public service attractive to a broader chunk of the population, our future leaders are going to be worse than they are now.
Brian Klaas is an associate professor of global politics at University College London and author of the forthcoming “Corruptible: Who Gets Power and How It Changes Us.”
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