It’s now widely recognized that coverage of the 2016 campaign was skewed because too many national reporters and analysts had little understanding of local communities in wide swaths of America. Various outlets are remedying that, but there’s a related and equally important problem that’s going largely unaddressed. So many of those leading the discussion of the state of American governance at the national level have little to no experience in governing, especially at the state and local level.
There’s no doubt that academics, journalists, and pundits have a great deal to offer the national political conversation. But if they have not been shaped by the actual experience of holding governing authority, their perspectives will be incomplete. That absence will affect how they assess events, the advice they offer, and how they engage in the debate. Legendary Speaker of the House Sam Rayburn was on to something when he remarked, after being told about the brilliance and education of President Kennedy’s staff, “I'd feel a whole lot better about them if just one of them had run for sheriff once.”
I just finished a term on Maryland’s State Board of Education, including two years as its president, after previously serving in two other state-level positions, three at the federal level, and running for the state legislature myself. I’m more convinced than ever that we need to hear more often from those who’ve been shaped by governing, especially outside of Washington. Relatedly, I think our public intellectuals would be well served by a sabbatical to do the public’s business outside of the Beltway.
Those who write and talk about policy and politics are encouraged to prioritize profound findings, general themes, and memorable language. They cite academic studies, point to national data sets, and offer provocative takes in catchy prose. But as a result, their assessments often speak broadly, not directly to most people’s lives. They can be alarmist and make dramatic recommendations, when most people — who are dealing with their jobs, personal interests, and family responsibilities — are quite content and looking for incremental, practical adjustments.
As an aide to legislators and later as a state-level agency official, I saw firsthand how far insightful but conceptual musings from commentators could stray from individuals’ and communities’ real-life priorities. We can all gain from a brilliant TED Talk or a clever column, but you learn something different by regularly visiting clinics, start-ups, shelters, and schools.
It is affecting in the best ways to sit through long public meetings, mediate opposing views, and grapple with the mechanics of governing. It forces you to develop patience, an appreciation for the legitimate differences among us, and skills for negotiating the democratic institutions of a pluralistic society. It is also deeply formative to be the one actually casting the vote or making the administrative decision, instead of just offering advice or critiquing others’ choices.
Some scholars and pundits admit that they don’t have the serenity or stamina for public service. That’s understandable; we’re all built differently. But that’s also the point. Talented people who think in terms of speeches to allies, podcasts for niche audiences, and articles designed to poke and prod will inevitably have a different outlook than those who routinely face frustrated and competing groups of advocates and then have to make decisions that will influence many lives.
Often, when our leading public voices do have governing experience, it’s been in Washington. But that can be nearly as distorting as no governing experience at all. I worked for Congress, the White House, and a federal agency, and, though I learned a great deal from those experiences, they have significant downsides.
First, in Washington, you are so far removed from local communities that you can easily lose sight of the effects of your actions. You rely on aggregated figures and comprehensive reports. You simply don’t have the capacity to understand the fine-grained variation in the world outside the Beltway and how your tinkering can disturb it. Real lives can quickly be reduced to statistics on a page.
Second, D.C.’s political polarization, especially on Capitol Hill, causes people to think in terms of us versus them. It inflamed my partisanship and made me preoccupied with inside-the-Beltway drama. But most people aren’t partisan and they certainly don’t obsess about the latest D.C. dysfunction. In fact, one of the greatest pleasures of my recent state-level work was witnessing just how seldom people think and talk about Washington. Indeed, recent public opinion surveys reveal that Americans have more trust in their local and state governments than in the federal government and are much more satisfied with the way things are going in their communities than in the country.
The preternaturally wise Abraham Lincoln is reported to have said, “I like to see a man proud of the place in which he lives. I like to see a man live so that his place will be proud of him.” Though the attribution is likely apocryphal, this pithy formulation combines three valuable ideas: that there’s an important connection between individuals and their homes; that this connection urges them to behave with integrity; and that this kind of social formation should make them better citizens. On the first score, there is simply no substitute for the trust that develops from local knowledge. I once had a colleague with 20 years of federal agriculture-policy experience stopped short by a local farmer who said, “Well, you don’t know farming here.” A number of years ago, I confidently took my Washington experience into a high-level position in a state where I had no experience. I was repeatedly told, in ways subtle and otherwise, that I didn’t understand their way of doing things. Those who weigh in on policy matters from afar would be well served to experience such humbling firsthand.
The other side of this coin, though, is that once you are tied to a community and bear some responsibility for its affairs, you develop a clear sense of obligation. As state school board president, my decisions would directly affect the schools I attended and those my kids attend. After I had to take a tough vote on a school-calendar issue, I heard about it at the next little-league baseball game. On one matter, I found myself at odds with an advocacy group’s leader whose child was taught by one of my family members. After the most difficult and public dust-up of my tenure, I received a call from my toughest high school teacher, whom I’d not seen for 20 years. In each of these instances, I found myself doing my absolute best to behave with honor. I couldn’t make everyone happy, but, like Lincoln (purportedly) noted, I wanted them to be proud of me.
Should I ever serve in a public capacity again, I would take these lessons with me — that people hold their communities tightly and are skeptical of outsiders’ meddling and that I should always take the greatest of care to talk and act thoughtfully, generously, and honestly. I can’t help but wonder if our polarization problem is at least partly due to a lack of state and local government experience among our national leaders — in both politics and the media.
In a study from 2017, a former colleague and I found that President Trump’s initial cabinet members in domestic policy had substantially less governing experience than those of Presidents Obama, Bush, and Clinton. In fact, six of Trump’s 15 choices had zero full-time government experience. Trump’s appointees also had no experience in local government or non-elected state-level positions, the types of offices that give occupants an up-close view of how government action affects citizens. Similarly, in this Congress, fewer than half of members were once a part of state legislatures and only about 10 percent were once mayors or governors. According to Brookings’ “Vital Statistic on Congress” more of today’s U.S. Representatives were previously occupied in business or banking than in public service or politics, and more of today’s U.S. Senators were occupied in law than in public service or politics.
Many analysts would see this primarily as an expertise issue — that these individuals enter office lacking policy knowledge. But more significant might be a kind of temperament issue — they have not been forced through tough experience to develop the disposition for governing.
Again, none of this is meant to demean those lacking governing experience who want to engage in the public’s business. We are fortunate to learn from scholars who study particular issues closely, journalists who report conscientiously, and commentators who observe incisively. But the governing temperament honed by actually governing, especially governing close to the governed, is special. And it is needed now more than ever.
I hope in the months and years ahead, we get the chance to hear a bit more from those with this experience. And for progressives and conservatives opposed to this administration, it might be fruitful to spend these wilderness years in state or local public service. The nation would be well served if the next wave of national leaders were to be formed by governing experiences that make them proud of their homes and their homes proud of them.
Andy Smarick (@smarick) is the director of civil society, education, and work at the R Street Institute.