The public sector certainly has its issues in a number of different areas including housing, education, and labor. There can, however, be a point where the anti-public sector rhetoric can reach a tipping point where an excess amount of unfair criticism can undermine public institutions to the point where it becomes easier for them to be eliminated.
Steve Bannon, Chief Strategist to President Donald Trump, stated earlier this year that one of the administration’s top goals was the deconstruction of the administrative state. He vowed to fight daily in this effort to essentially dismantle public sector administration. Embedded in this goal is a threat to gut the social safety net as we know it.
Many of these public institutions and resources that compose this safety net have been critical vehicles for the social advancement and survival of vulnerable populations. Constructive critique can venture into the smear category when inaccurate versions of stories are presented and singular scenarios are consistently extrapolated to demonize an entire system.
The march toward an increased level of privatization has been underway for decades for better and for worse, depending on the circumstance. When public resources are consistently and unfairly disparaged then it is easier for them to be dismantled and dismissed.
An example has been the demonization of public schools. The term “public schools” has almost become synonymous with failing. Some of the negative narratives that have become dominant are “terrible public schools”, “uninspired teachers”, and “children who can’t learn”. This imagery and narratives are significant and have the power to shape reality.
The master narrative of “bad public schools” is able to drown out counter narratives. The stories of good public schools are mostly submerged by broader derogatory characterizations. The result is often the development of public policy based on notions and narratives that are inaccurate and incomplete. If you can put the entirety of public schools in the dysfunctionality bag, then it becomes easy to move an alternative agenda of destruction.
Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos and several state governments have put their foot on the gas with regards to accelerating the growth of charter schools including those that are privately managed. Charter schools serve a purpose and can be great vehicles for innovation, but the starving out of traditional public schools to fund the resurgence of charter schools is not a tenable proposition for the over 90% of students who attend traditional public schools.
The move that DeVos spearheaded in Michigan to accelerate privately managed charter schools fits into the larger movement in the national government to privatize public resources. Profits cannot be put over the people in the growing movement to privatize governmental functions. It is easier to do this when public schools are characterized as terrible. It is easy to throw what is considered terrible in the garbage. An example of this is the potential closure of 24 schools in Detroit, Michigan by the Summer.
The Trump administration has also pushed its agenda of deconstructing the administrative state by appointing federal agency heads who tend to be adversarial to the role of the agency. An example of this is Scott Pruitt, the head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Prior to being appointed to the post by Trump, he spent the last several years suing the EPA over efforts to regulate the oil and gas industry as the Attorney General for Oklahoma. He has a pattern of actions like this that stand in contradiction to the general purpose of the agency, but align well with the public sector deconstruction tactics of the Trump administration.
The notion of dismissing public institutions and services is a dangerous one. Abraham Lincoln laid out the vital role of the public sector when he said that “the legitimate object of government…. to do for a community of people, whatever they need to have done, but cannot do, at all, or cannot , so well do for themselves – in their separate and individual capacities.”
Public administration has played a vital role in protecting the rights of citizens and creating spaces for people who have been locked out of other areas. Protection and aid from the federal government will be crucial as more and more power will likely be shifted to the states. The public sector smear campaign must be vigorously opposed.
Marcus Bright, Ph.D. is a Scholar and Activist