By Sam Pfeifle —
There is a historical theory about the fall of the 500-year-old Roman Republic that gets spread around in policy discourse. The last person I heard reciting it was retired Supreme Court Justice David Souter. The Republic didn’t fall because Caesar’s heir, Octavian, murdered his political enemies and engineered his creation as “Augustus Caesar” and Rome’s first emperor. Rather, the Republic failed because government couldn’t deal with a series of floods and famine that ripped through Rome, and Octavian—Augustus!—convinced the populace that only he could save them.
The people had lost faith in the Republic because it had failed them. They turned, then, to someone who convinced them he could restore Rome’s glory. Sound familiar? It ought to, and not just because it sounds eerily like Make America Great Again, but because it is the story of how many historical dictators have come to power; they thrive on disorder and bureaucratic failure to solve common problems.
With today’s ever-present binary discourse—where efforts can only be “failures” or “successes,” and where mainstream media is content to allow only two options, Republicans and Democrats, to provide leadership—we find ourselves as a country in a tough spot. Problems that are generational in nature are approached with a series of unserious, quick-fix solutions, and therefore “optics” and “PR” are prioritized over thoroughgoing resolution of issue after issue. Politics in the United States has become a series of cynical attempts at appearing to try.
Therein lies the opportunity for us Greens. We need to demonstrate, through leadership and actions, that government can make people’s lives better; that collective action makes all of us stronger; that working together and deploying sound process results in positive outcomes. Too often, proposed solutions are based on “gut feelings,” or broad, meaningless statements that sound good but lack details and particulars. Even we Greens fall prey to this.
People who do the work of governmental administration know that the details matter. Ill-conceived laws and policies have a real-world impact, even if they are well meaning. Greens need to marry the good intentions held by many people across the political spectrum with the competent administration and process development that actually gets things done and improves lives.
GET ELECTED AT THE LOCAL LEVEL
At the local level, we have the opportunity to make significant and visible civic contributions. Across the country, rural school boards and town councils are seeing a dearth of candidates, with many of those running motivated by a desire for personalistic benefits or driven by ideology and partisan media. When the ideologically-driven folks get into power, unfortunately, their ideology fails them. Being “conservative” doesn’t make one good at ensuring that there are enough bus drivers to get the kids to school (there aren’t enough in most municipalities these days). Being “liberal” doesn’t make one good at hammering out a fair contract with those drivers so that, in a tight labor market, they’ll want to remain in the district and continue providing service.
What makes a good public administrator is someone who takes each situation as it arises, applies solid ethical frameworks to the process of decision-making, and then follows through to implement solutions that effectuate the most good while doing the least harm. What’s the best way to get on board more bus drivers? What motivates them to provide exemplary service? What barriers stand in the way of people who would like to become bus drivers?
I have found in my time on a rural school board that when process is collectively created and followed, the logical answers are rarely in dispute and “opinion” rarely enters the discourse. As practical matters come before us, one by one, my colleagues and I consider the best way to proceed toward resolution in each particular case, and then we reach a decision. There is, of course, dissent from time to time, but in general problems do get solved, and usually in an efficient fashion.
As a Green, I did not create this culture on my board. It was brought to the board by a capable woman whom I believe to be a Republican (I never asked, but that was my impression). What she understood, and what I believe to this day, is that when the buses show up and reliably pick up your kids you come to trust those who lead the agency that makes that happen. When the trash always gets picked up, when the water lines never break, when public transport is timely and affordable, people recognize the quality of the work involved (even if they sometimes need a reminder of who was responsible).
As we Greens look to the future and what we’d like to accomplish, there’s no doubt that national-scale universal health care, a meaningful approach to the climate crisis, and a radical reduction of militarism are important and admirable goals. But I think we need to spend more time making sure there are enough school bus drivers in our towns before we expect our fellow community members to place their trust in our big-picture ideals!
Sam Pfeifle is a writer living in Gray, Maine. He is a former Chair of the Maine Green Independent Party’s Press Committee, currently serves as the Chair of the MSAD 15 School Board and was recently the press coordinator for the Lisa for Maine campaign. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.