Imagine this: After going 100 days without a community outbreak of Covid, New Zealand had four new cases––which grew quickly to a cluster of 17. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern was told at 4pm on a Tuesday that the pandemic had returned, and by 9:15pm that night she held a news conference to announce a return to her “go hard go early” policy. The country would move into a restricted status, including a complete lockdown in Auckland. The infected individuals, their families and co-workers were quarantined in the nation’s quarantine facilities and contact tracing was initiated.
Contrast that response with the United States. First of all, we did not go either early or hard. Despite medical and scientific advice to the contrary, the people were told that the pandemic would go away—poof, just go away. What went away were the lives of more than 170,000 American people and the jobs of millions more.
The startling contrast in the New Zealand and America responses to Covid isn’t what struck me. We all know that our nation lags abysmally behind many others in the developed world. No, what really caught my attention was the response of New Zealanders to a government edict that they must return to restricted living and to mask-wearing rules. The New York Times quoted one New Zealander as saying, “My heart dropped. But we are sensible…we trust our government.”
“We trust our government.”
I can’t remember a time that I heard those words from an American. Since the day when Ronald Reagan said “The most terrifying words in the English language are, ‘I am from the government and I am here to help you,’” to Donald Trump’s overt attacks on the credibility of public institutions, Republican candidates and office holders have consistently embraced the anti-government mantra. Their attitude and actions are best summed up by Grover Norquist, an anti-tax crusader and Republican partisan. He said he wanted to “shrink it down to a size where we can drown it in a bathtub.”
But government is not an abstract “thing” that hangs like a piñata for blindfolded politicians to bang on with rhetorical sticks. Most people who work in government are there because they want to serve. Diplomats, intelligence and law enforcement professionals, members of the military, doctors, nurses, social workers, teachers, postal employees, administrators and clerks spend their careers and lives seeking to serve the public.
In my career I have led government agencies, built and managed a business, and served on the governing boards of publicly-traded corporations. My first-hand witness is that the hardest working people I have served with were those in public service. They were also among the lowest paid and had to silently suffer through constant ridicule from the men and women who were elected or appointed to be their leaders.
Following the Leaders
We Americans too often follow our leaders’ flame-fanning behavior, and condemn all career government employees for the bad acts of a few. Lately we have been told that the intelligence community is made up of incompetents and criminals, and they are dismissed as “deep-state” rogues by executive and legislative branch Republicans. Clearly, evidence shows that a few acted incorrectly, perhaps illegally. But on the whole, we are protected by some of the finest minds with the best intelligence-gathering tools in the world. In fact, this week the Republican controlled Senate published a report that validated much of the intelligence community’s conclusions with regard to Russia working with American political operators on behalf of the Trump campaign in 2016. I haven’t heard those who attacked the intelligence conclusions as a hoax (and suggested that those professionals who produced it should be fired or jailed) now saying, “We apologize. With very few exceptions you did a great job. We were wrong. Thank you for your service.”
Health professionals are besmirched, publicly ridiculed and sometimes fired or demoted because they reach scientific conclusions that don’t fit the political rhetoric of their elected and appointed leaders. Yes, mistakes were made by the doctors and scientists, but not nearly as many as have been made by federal and state elected leaders.
The same kind of arguments can be made about postal employees working diligently to prepare for the election; teachers and school administrators who are trying to balance the educational needs of our children with health and safety threats of the pandemic. All are struggling to fulfill their call to serve while coping with inadequate resources and interference from partisan political agendas.
Honor Rather Than Debase
The current atmosphere in the nation is a logical culmination of decades of anti-government rhetoric, which was too often successful in campaigns, but made governing always difficult and sometimes impossible. If the career government employees were treated with the same respect we demand for ourselves, respect they have earned through their dedicated service and years of education, the nation would be better served. People like Dr Anthony Fauci, Sally Yates, Lt. Col Alexander Vindman, Fiona Hill, Laura Cooper are not anomalies. There are thousands of federal, state and local government employees at work today protecting, caring for, teaching and supporting the American people and our governments. We should honor rather than debase them.
Then, perhaps, we would be able to stand proudly with them and say, “We trust our government.”
Bill Jamieson’s career has included leadership positions in business, government, and education. He was also an ordained deacon in the Episcopal Church and his ministry centered around advocacy for low-income families and children.