Saturday, April 05, 2003

Kevin Drum asks:

Here's my question: why do I read stuff like this so often? As near as I can tell, the world is full of people who are contemptuous of government agencies and government employees, but they always make an exception for their own friends and for people they themselves have worked for. To a man, these folks are portrayed as islands of sanity in an otherwise hellish sea of indolence and backstabbing.
To an extent, it might just be personal loyalty, but there's more to it than that, because it extends to elected officials. Polling in the past has constantly and clearly showed that while people will rail against Congress, they usually describe their own Reps and Senators as exceptions to the rule. Thing is, the reason why they do is because that is exactly what they're usually told is the case: that the candidate in question is going to "clean up Washington/the state capitol", contrasting themselves with the big scary government machine that they're going to be going up against, "Mr. Smith goes to washington" style. Partially it's because of differences within the country being reflected in the legislatures but not in the actual representatives, but the simple reality of posturing and negative advertising (as well as utterly candidate-driven elections where party only makes a difference once you're already elected) have more to do with it.

This effect, of course, spills over to the bureaucracy: fearsome as a whole, demonized by everybody, victim of tons of political rhetoric... yet getting to know each individual reveals that far from being a cog in the machine, bureaucrats are as much people as anybody else. That lady who gave you a hard time at the DMV is doing her job, just like everybody else, and its a job that at least partially requires people to be a little cold because they can't be seen as playing favorites when interacting with the public.

Once you stop thinking of these people as The Other and return to them their humanity, you'd be surprised at how different things really are. We do it for individuals. It's a shame we can't seem to ever do it as a whole.

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