'Politics' Has Become a Dirty Word. Has America Lost Democracy to Technocracy?

'Politics' Has Become a Dirty Word. Has America Lost Democracy to Technocracy?
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RCEd Commentary

I was late getting home. Traffic was awful, and the grocery store packed. I jumped out of the car, grabbed as many bags as I could, and turned for the front door.

But out of the corner of my eye, I saw a man with a collared shirt and an incandescent smile walking down our driveway. With Primary Day approaching my mental calculus was quick: He’s running for office.

I could’ve pretended not to see him and rushed inside with some harried-dad flare. But I put down my bags, shook his hand, and said, “Hi. I’m Andy, and you know I’m a faithful primary voter, huh?”

Maybe I was just showing compassion for a guy canvassing in the summer heat. I was also probably empathizing, recalling the slog of my own run for the state legislature. But I’d like to think I engaged him mostly because of my quaint faith in democracy. Unfortunately, in recent months, it’s felt like this faith has occasionally put me at odds with a number of ed-reform colleagues.

You don’t have to be an expert on Montesquieu, Locke, or Tocqueville to appreciate self-rule. Maybe you were smitten with game theory in college, came across Robert Putnam in a book club, read the Gladwell-esque The Wisdom of Crowds, or just appreciate Churchill’s quip.

However we got there, most of us appreciate that democracy produces solid results. A wide array of people plus a fair process generally generates a robust conclusion; and those that don’t get their way still tend to accept the result’s legitimacy. This produces a stable long-term system and a malleable, short-term policy environment -- a government that’s reliable but adaptable.

Lately, though, it’s seemed like folks appreciate this in concept but detest it in practice. Their feelings appear to stem from two beliefs. The first is that democratic process, a.k.a. “politics,” is unseemly, its practitioners shifty. “Playing politics” is code for “obsequious pandering.” Being “political” is to sacrifice the public good for base interests.

The second is technocratic elitism -- the conviction that correct policy answers can be deduced by the most educated and cultured minds. It holds that filtering policy issues through the insufficiently educated and cultured leads to primitive decisions.

I recoil at both thanks largely to my run for office. I knocked on 10,000 doors, attended scads of community meetings, and participated in countless town halls. Initially, I thought this was simply in service of vote acquisition. But soon I realized how much I was learning -- about my district, its families, personal histories and hopes, and community beliefs and priorities. I listened to stories about sick parents and troubled kids, property taxes and congested roads, health care and immigration, schools and jobs.

I learned what to expect -- and appreciate the meaning -- when I saw an American flag on a crumbling porch, a “Beware of Dog” sign on an expensive fence, a meticulously tended garden in a low-income neighborhood, a religious statue on a 2-acre lawn, a new Volvo in a driveway, an old Ford under a carport.

The campaign wasn’t just competition; it was preparation, getting ready for and being worthy of representing others. Politics, I realized, properly understood, is about understanding and reflecting others. It’s a form of humility and emotional acumen, not selfishness and crassness, that enables leaders to mirror their constituents and be informed by their views. In my view, contra Edmund Burke, a great service is done when a representative defers to his district.

Such authentic engagement also produces organic, evolutionary, durable decisions that people trust. This sets them apart from those devised by the technocratic cognoscenti.

To the intelligentsia, distrust of the elite is the secular stigmata of a rube. But many Americans understand that the “Best Men” of the Progressive Era often produced anti-immigrant and -Catholic policies; that JFK’s “Best and Brightest,” “for all their brilliance and hubris and sense of themselves,” brought us Vietnam; that the best minds of the last two administrations assured us that there were WMDs and that we could keep our insurance.

Even when our elites don’t fail us, many Americans believe they are disconnected, cosseted in “Super Zips” – American zip codes with the highest college graduation rates and per capita income -- with very different lifestyles and experiences. Understanding the divide between themselves and those attending Manhattan galas or Bethesda dinners, many Americans prefer to be governed by those they know and those who know them. Bill Buckley might have substituted “We” for “I” when he noted famously, “I'd rather entrust the government of the United States to the first 400 people listed in the Boston telephone directory than to the faculty of Harvard.”

I worry that too often education reform is falling on the wrong side of the democratic-technocratic divide.

According to The Washington Post, Bill Gates, the world’s wealthiest man, “grew irritated” when the backlash to Common Core was mentioned in an interview. The standards “are not political things,” he said. Those with “expertise” are just trying to improve schools.

Republican Gov. Mary Fallin, a graduate of Oklahoma State, has been elected by Oklahoma to the state legislature and Congress and as lieutenant governor and governor. She said, “Federal overreach has tainted Common Core. President Obama and Washington bureaucrats have usurped Common Core.” She was accused of “giving in.”

Republican Gov. Phil Bryant, born and educated in Mississippi and elected as a Mississippi legislator, lieutenant governor, and governor, said his state would maintain Common Core only if no federal money was involved. He was quickly accused of “political expediency.”

Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal was born in Louisiana, which sent him to Congress and twice elected him governor. He now wants “Louisiana standards and Louisiana tests for Louisiana students,” Reformers collectively rolled their eyes at him, and U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan dismissed this as “about politics.”

To be clear, I greatly admire those like Republican former Fla. Gov. Jeb Bush who’ve tirelessly and genuinely sought to engage with states’ elected officials. I also greatly appreciate the Gates Foundation’s investment in helping educators implement the new standards.

But in too many other cases, our field has succumbed to the derision of politics, giving the impression that technocracy is preferable to democracy. My experience, though, is that the people are far wiser and their representatives far more attuned than many elites believe (ensuring democratic voice is also invaluable and essential as we overhaul urban school systems).

If I had my way, this summer and fall, each education reform leader would skip the conference circuit, pick a state she finds frustrating, and go knock on some doors.

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