Opinion: Politics isn’t a dirty word

Mark Cassell

Mark Cassell

Mark Cassell is an associate professor of political science. He can be reached at [email protected].

Political scientists have a tough job these days. Few words are as unpopular as “government” or “bureaucrat.” And while throwing out the occasional F-bomb is considered cool, any reference to government is a recipe for bombing with friends, family and especially in the classroom. Now I’m not looking for sympathy for political scientists or any professors at Kent State. Teaching Kent students and doing research is a great great job. Instead, I want to offer a different take on government, bureaucrats and politics.

First, government. It’s popular to blame government for America and Ohio’s woes. But imagine what things would be like without government? Kent State wouldn’t exist. Education would be limited to the wealthiest. There would be few roads, bridges, airports or even sports stadiums. No Internet. No Facebook. And a lot more folks would be sick and unable to get medical care. But those are the easy examples.

The less obvious truth is that our private sector economy would crumble without government. Imagine if we lacked a judicial system to enforce contracts. What business would succeed without a stable currency? Suppose you didn’t know whether the money you deposited in a bank was safe, or you or parents couldn’t borrow to pay for a home or car? What would that do to real estate, construction, or the automobile industry?

Now let’s turn to “bureaucrat.” I frankly love and honor public sector bureaucrats. That’s not a phrase you’ll often hear, nor is it a great line at a party. But it was a bureaucrat who taught me to read and write. Bureaucrats were the first ones into the twin towers on 9/11. Bureaucrats are deployed everyday overseas in countries like Iraq, Afghanistan and South Korea. Those who bash bureaucrats dishonor our troops. And it’s bureaucrats fighting fires in Texas and rescuing flood victims from Vermont to Mississippi. So while they’re an easy target, I think we should thank a bureaucrat the next time we see one or at least buy them a drink.

Finally, the surest way to express dissatisfication is to call something “political.” Politics refers to conflict, and conflict is something most of us would prefer to avoid. But how many of us want to live in a world where you couldn’t express yourself or fight for your point of view? I’ve worked in companies and visited foreign countries where dissent is forbidden: no politics but a nightmare nevertheless. Democracies are great systems of government precisely because of politics – because individuals and groups can express their difference and influence government. But that’s only half the story.

Politics is also about channeling our shared human and capital resources to solve collective problems. No one person could build Kent State University. Ok, maybe Warren Buffet or Bill Gates. But public universities are the product of collective action – politics. Politics enabled us to bring down the barriers to civil rights and conquer diseases like polio. Our roads, public libraries, and public schools are the product of politics. Politics brought democratization to eastern Europe. And it was politics that enabled my father and millions of American veterans like him to get an education through the GI Bill. Although admittedly frustrating, politics is the channeling of our collective energies toward a public purpose and I embrace it.

So can government, bureaucrats, or politics improve? Absolutely. I’ll save for another time the story of when the Department of Motor Vehicles refused to renew my license because the system had me down as a female. Let’s just say there’s room for improvement in the public sector. But to make improvements requires we acknowledge and appreciate how crucial government is to our lives and our economy. Ok. Even as I write this it’s clear the topic is still not going to work at a party. But maybe you’ll enjoy your beverage more knowing government helped ensure it was safe to drink.