My Public Service Announcement about Politics
January 23, 2017
People on both sides of a number of aisles and sides believe that now is the time to speak out, to express what’s on your mind, to stand up for what you believe in, to tell it like it is. The implied criticism is that if you don’t that you are a moral coward, somehow less than fully patriotic, a bystander to the great outrages of our age.
I’m not going to. For a bunch of reasons.
- I shouldn’t. I am a nonpartisan number cruncher in the federal government working with people from both political parties. Technically, I have the right to spew my beliefs, but doing so would undermine my role in our political system. I can’t undermine any trust or credibility I’ve built with people in both parties and independents by tossing my opinions in the mix. I have seen other civil servants do that and it’s incredibly wrong and counterproductive. (You probably think I’m talking about James Comey, the election-flipper poster-boy for what a civil servant should never do, but no, I’m not.) Part of the job is to inform people (again, from either party) that some of their beliefs about the state of the world are self-destructive misperceptions. You need to be considered trustworthy.
- I really shouldn’t. I am also a manager and have staff who report to me. A boss or other authority-figure who spouts unsolicited political, religious, or sexual opinions that have little to do with their job are abusing that authority. This is trickier when some of those staff knew me as a mouthy coworker from pre-management days and know exactly where I stand. It’s also trickier because I do have some responsibility to look after the mental health and morale of these folks (which is a bigger part of the job than I ever imagined). Sometimes that means tamping down their enthusiasm/depression when their team/issue/sports team doesn’t perform as expected (even if I agree with their feelings). Like with the political people, I need to be seen as a trustworthy voice on certain issues and there’s just not a lot of room there to take sides and still be effective in that role.
- I just won’t. There is an overwhelming surplus of guys, especially nerdy white guys like me, who feel compelled to spew forth their opinions in public. The world has too many of them and my small contribution will be to not be another one.
Don’t get me wrong: I am a highly political person. My undergraduate degree is in political science, my master’s is in public policy, and I work for political appointees in Washington, DC. I am chock full of opinions, both odd and conventional, highly-informed and knee-jerk. For that reason, here comes the however’s:
However, I do have to stay engaged with politics and policy for my fed job. (It’s why I read the Washington Post, which I really dislike doing.) About 75% of my office’s success is anticipating the needs of elected officials and their staffers. To do that requires staying on top of various policy discussions, knowing the players, and predicting where things will go next. And that requires a certain amount of political analysis and prediction. But not advocacy.
However, I will offer information on various political science and political history to people when I deem it necessary. Especially because those who don’t know history are doomed to think everything happening now is unprecedented. Nine times out of ten it’s not unprecedented. And it is shocking to me how many people who work in or opine on politics or public policy have the scantest knowledge of civics, history, or philosophy.
However, I will call people on their blindspots when they are about to step in a squishy pile that could splatter on me. Especially when their ill-informed opinions are causing them substantial and misplaced distress or shiny-eyed glee. This is ingrained in my personality and there is a certain joy I get in doing so.
However, I will opinionate on other public policy issues unrelated to my job when the need or urge arises. (I just published a book on the obesity epidemic that doesn’t exactly paint the food industry in an entirely positive light, for instance.)
However, as a writer, I will hold forth with opinions on non-political subjects, when they are warranted. I have already expressed a bevy of them. These subjects are going to be relatively apolitical in nature, as much as anything can be apolitical in such an age. But I will try to remember my third point, that in general, adding another unsolicited guy’s opinion isn’t necessary these days.
However, I may accidentally violate my own rules. Writing this post is as much a reminder to myself as it is a public service announcement to those wondering why I haven’t chimed in.