The War Against Public Servants

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The 30+ day shutdown of the federal government was the most recent and glaring evidence of an escalating war on public servants. Our governmental system, which was founded by revolutionaries to ensure that Americans would receive needed goods and services without fear of monarchs or dictators, is being tested as never before. But this change of attitude towards hardworking people, who used to be revered, has been festering for the past sixty years.

During the second half of the last century, government workers were just the neighbors you chatted with on urban brownstone stoops or southern front porches, sat next to in church, or ran into at the mall. They put in their forty hours delivering the mail, collecting the garbage, giving tours at the Grand Canyon or Gettysburg, or sending out social security checks.

Government service was a route to a career for the formerly disenfranchised. During World War II, women and people with disabilities took on important jobs, vacated by men who went to war. Later – though usually paid less than their white male counterparts – women and people of color were able to enter the white-collar world as teachers, secretaries, or mail room workers. Government workers had regular hours, regular paychecks and pensions. Just as important, while there have always been scandals (usually perpetrated by politicians, not career civil servants), bureaucrats were respected for their service.

The Federal government, from Defense to NASA to NIH, had always been the leader in science and research, inventing medical equipment, Teflon, and other devices and cures to make Americans’ lives easier. When the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) was created in the 1940s, its employees were paid by ranchers and foresters to provide information and guidance to help preserve habitat needed for cattle ranching and timber production. President Richard Nixon, a Republican, signed the National Environment Policy Act to protect our lands and waters.

During the 1970s and 1980s, roles started to change. As “deregulation” and “smaller government” became the talking points, government positions were cut, wages stagnated, and the bias against science and research began. As BLM hired more diversely educated professionals to deal with the new publics (e.g., environmentalists, lawyers, realtors, etc.) and became more centrist, the Sagebrush Rebellion – symbolized by Reagan’s Secretary of Interior James Watt – erupted. BLM workers were threatened and harassed throughout western states.

Throughout the 1990s and 2000s, reductions in government positions combined with rising wages, more jobs, and greater respect afforded to people in the private sector, siphoned off many talented people. Scandals and misguided programs (perpetuated by politicians, not career workers) and unveiling of long-term misjustice in the police and court systems have tainted the image of all government workers.

Ignorance of what government actually does (civics and public administration courses disappeared from schools) and who the workers are (TSA workers and teachers are not rich loafers feeding at the government trough) have contributed to the politically-motivated shutdowns since the 1990s. 

If anything, those who still pursue government careers are those who are especially dedicated and committed to helping Americans, as evidenced by their diligence without pay early this year. How many in private sector would put up with that? 

 Career public servants are our best defense against tyrannical leaders, terrorists, ignorance, disease, crime and natural disasters. They are still our relatives, neighbors, educators, protectors and service providers, and deserve our support & respect.