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Service and Politics

July 7, 2010

Over the past few days, an interesting discussion has been taking place in the comments section of the Homeland Security Watch blog about the proper role of the military in disaster operations and the recovery process in particular. In this debate, I hear echoes of the discussions that took place the week before surrounding public participation in homeland security and emergency management. Both of these discussions raise questions about the place of professionalism and leadership in crisis management.

People who talk about civic engagement usually make a distinction between two different manifestations of it in public life: service and politics. As noted by Walker (2000), people continue to hold generally positive views of service but have developed a more jaundiced view of politics. This may explain why public officials we see as exemplars of service, such as military service members, firefighters, police officers (often but not always), and judges, merit such abiding trust and respect. At the same time, however, it raises questions about the way we see those who serve without compensation.

Our homeland security and emergency management discourse, like that of the public generally, seems to assume that most of these activities are jobs for professionals. It may be true that much of the complex work we associate with these fields requires highly specialized skills and strong technical intuitions honed over time. But it is probably more accurate to say that we value professionalism in these fields for the same reason we disdain overt political involvement: We see professionalism as having a particular character that is unencumbered by self-interest or at the very least informed by a strong sense of moral purpose.

This was not always the case, however. Distrust of government and elected officials in particular is nothing new in these United States. In the early days of the republic, Alexis de Tocqueville observed the unusual tendency of Americans to voluntarily organize themselves for the common good rather than vesting government with additional powers and responsibilities. Spontaneous associations of every sort seemed to arise in every nook and cranny of civil society. These days, in contrast, civic engagement or the perceived lack of it has become a cause of increasing concern in some quarters. Even before 9/11 and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq some commentators questioned the sustainability of the all-volunteer military.

The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have clearly stretched our military resources, but they have also demonstrated the adaptability and resourcefulness of our men and women in uniform and their families. This is especially true of the citizen soldiers and airmen of the National Guard and their counterparts in the active reserve.

Associations between service, especially military service, and citizenship, especially as it is manifest through community engagement are very common, but not altogether clearly a case of cause and effect as some might assume. Although it is no doubt true that many if not most of those who serve our country under arms willingly extend their commitment to service long after their severance from active duty in myriad voluntary capacities, the instincts that impel such involvement may just as easily have been the cause of their military service rather than its inevitable result. In contrast, the case for military experience in politics works differently indeed. For much of our history, we have looked to military service if not as a prerequisite for public office then at least a strong endorsement of a candidate’s character.

Dan O’Connor wrote a couple of weeks ago about the lack of evidence of shared sacrifice on the homefront accompanying the current conflicts. He went so far as to suggest that the nation itself was not at war, even if we might agree that our military is thus engaged.

The evidence of disengagement, however, is difficult to pin down, at least for me, situated as I am in a place — Portland, Oregon — renowned for the habits of its citizens to be highly engaged in both service and politics. On one hand, I am aware of persistent criticism of the Deepwater Horizon response, which seems to emerge from the fact that people see so little evidence of a professional (much less effective) response. On the other, I hear people complaining bitterly over the lack of tangible and meaningful opportunities to engage in voluntary service to stem the tide of oil heading for the shores of the Gulf Coast states.

Clearly, people see a place for professionalism in the response to catastrophes. But do professionals see a role for them?

What everyone seems to agree on, but no one seems as yet to have a handle on, is that the Deepwater Horizon crisis, like catastrophes before it, demands clear and decisive leadership. But genuine and effective leadership is no more about telling people what to do than it is telling them what they want to hear. Real leadership involves listening and learning, deciding and doing, assuming responsibility and acting upon reflection.

In each phase, leaders have both the opportunity and necessity to engage others. Engagement in this sense is about more than just managing people as resources. It involves making people a part of every decision and action that affects their interests.

Failing to note and act upon this only sets us up for failure. Because, in the end, try as we may to separate service from politics, the two go hand-in-hand. People may serve without expectation of remuneration or compensation, but they will not stay satisfied for long if they do not have a say in what happens and how it gets done. We can agree to disagree about who should lead the response in the Gulf of Mexico, but we should agree that whoever takes the lead cannot afford to go it alone.

Further reading:

Skocpol, T. (1999). How Americans Became Civic in Skocpol, T. and M. Fiorina, Civic Engagement in American Democracy, Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press, pp. 27-80.

Walker, T. (2000). The Service/Politics Split: Rethinking Service to Teach Political Engagement, PS: Political Science and Politics 33(3), pp. 646-649.

Youniss, J.; McLellan, J. & Yates, M. (1997). What We Know About Engendering Civic Identity, The American Behavioral Scientist 40(5), pp. 620-631.

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