Having spent most of the past month outside of the Washington Beltway, it has been quite interesting to see the reaction of people whose conversations don’t always involve some political, policy or procurement decisions coming out of Washington, DC. I have been working with wonderfully bright, articulate and community-engaged folks, successful in their personal and professional lives. Yet, the conversations have been different than the ones I have in Washington.
It is remarkable that the potential of a federal government shutdown – a story that dominated the National Capital Region – was met with a palpable “yawn” in most of the rest of the country. Perhaps it is because most of these same folks have become numb to the reality of Congressional dysfunctionality and Executive Branch rhetorical brinksmanship.
The United States and Russia significantly elevated their differences in dealing with international issues, as demonstrated in UN speeches and Syrian air strikes. No one where I was working believes the US-China cyber hacking agreement is worth the electrons spent drafting it. And while the Pope’s visit captivated news coverage for a week, it didn’t take long for his private talks with Kim Davis and a former student who is gay to overtake the messages of compassion and caring for others he delivered in Washington, New York and Philadelphia. Pope who??? (Yawn and stretch) “What’s for lunch?”
People are not dumb… but they do seem numb to most of the things they hear coming from Washington. If so, President Obama’s comments this past week about the tragic community college shootings in Oregon becoming a “routine” issue can be applied across a wide range of issues that resonate within Washington but not in the country at large.
Is this complacency, what in the homeland security community is called a “September 10th mentality?” Or is it something else? After spending time this past month away from the home-office of political and policy wonks, I’m not so sure.
It seems more prevalent than at any time since September 2001 that unless the general public can identify personally and directly with an issue, they are not motivated to act. Some have called this “voter anger” and use it to explain the appeal of Donald Trump to the political right and Bernie Sanders to the political left. Maybe so, but it strikes me as something else. I think we are seeing the intense personalization of caring.
Everywhere I turn, I get the sense that people are thinking, “Unless an issue directly affects me, my family or my friends, why should I care about larger problems because there isn’t anything I can do about it. If I cannot control it, I don’t worry about it.”
Let me be the first to admit, these are thoughts I’ve had myself – on more than one occasion…you too, probably. On an individual basis, these can be explained away, but on a country-wide, collective basis, it is a change in American culture that would surprise Alexis De Tocqueville (“The greatness of America lies not in being more enlightened than any other nation, but rather in her ability to repair her faults.”).
So when I read that the latest Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey came out last week with the Department of Homeland Security at the bottom of the list (again) and received e-mail messages saying that while it has not yet been published, the Science and Technology Directorate had improved slightly but was rumored to be at the bottom of the DHS component list (again,) I wondered if DHS employees were expressing the same “why-should-I-care” messages that I was hearing across the country?
DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson tried to put a positive spin (“disappointed but not discouraged”) on the continued downward direction of survey results over the past few years and acknowledged that changing employees’ attitudes will take time. DHS employees still strongly believe in the mission, it appears, but they feel isolated and disengaged from the community they serve and the policy makers who are quite apt to criticize them personally when disagreements occur.
If there are threads tying these issues together, it is that homeland security workers view their government in much the same way others view the federal government overall – they don’t feel they have any way to make changes that will make their own lives better, or even just different. They are frustrated, bordering on numbness. If they cannot change the things that directly affect them, they don’t want to expend the emotional energy to do anything about it.
DHS, indeed all components of the federal government, will keep getting low survey results from their employees and from the general public until they find a way for people to get beyond the “what’s in it for me” atmosphere. Until that time, let’s hope and pray that it doesn’t take another September 11 type of incident to shock us out of our political numbness and into the sense that our individual security and freedom come from looking beyond our own individual interests.
Pope Francis’ encouragement to Congress last week is a good a place to start:
“Politics is, instead, an expression of our compelling need to live as one, in order to build as one the greatest common good: that of a community which sacrifices particular interests in order to share, in justice and peace, its goods, its interests, its social life. I do not underestimate the difficulty that this involves, but I encourage you in this effort.”