Reflections from the West

By Jeffrey L. Bernstein, Interim MPA Director & EMU Political Science Professor

By Jeffrey L. Bernstein, Interim MPA Director & EMU Political Science Professor

I recently had the opportunity to take a vacation out west to visit seven National Parks (Rocky Mountain, Grand Teton, Yellowstone, Zion, Bryce Canyon, Arches, and Mesa Verde).  It was a fantastic trip; message me if you’d like more info on what we did!

Half of the trip took place during the Republican National Convention, a fact that I think is of more than passing interest.  As I drove and thought about the issues that divide us politically these days, one of the biggest ones is the role and size of the federal government.  The Tea Party movement, for example, is particularly motivated by a desire to shrink government so that, in Grover Norquist’s words, “I can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub.”  Their influence ebbs and flows, but their views are certainly part of the conversation within the Republican Party.

One conversation that I had at Mesa Verde National Park stays with me.  A man who was a Tea Party supporter (trust me, he was!) and I were engaged in a conversation with a park ranger.  In my limited experience, park rangers bring a great deal of passion, and expertise, to their jobs; their guidance on what to do in our National Parks is simply invaluable.  As the three of us were conversing with the ranger, we got to talking about the ranger’s career; he had been working with the Park Service for over thirty years.  The Tea Party person and I were both impressed with that career, and the expertise he had developed over all that time.

I enjoyed this conversation; the Park Ranger clearly knew more about Mesa Verde, and the surrounding area, than I would be able to learn in fifteen lifetimes.  He was as passionate about his work as I am about mine, perhaps even more so.  He was, in short, an asset to anyone hoping to enjoy Mesa Verde.  And even the Tea Partyer talking with us could recognize that and found it valuable that we are able to have people like this working for our government and providing this kind of expertise to our citizenry.  His final comment, “I’m really glad to have all you park rangers working here,” was rather heartwarming.

While poignant, the comment also seemed out of place, since much of the Tea Party appeal comes in attacking “the government” and those who work for it.  Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin is a prime example of a politician who has built a career by attacking public sector workers who make a living at the public trough; his harsh attacks on public school teacher unions, and on college professors, hit close to home for this college professor whose parents taught in public schools. 

This got me thinking about the program I direct, and the students and alumni of our program.  Many of you work in the public sector.  Compared to park rangers, most of you are working at a significant disadvantage.  The strategic plan you are developing for your agency will never be as exciting as cliff dwellings inhabited over 800 years ago.  Your budget projections will not have people gaping in wonder and awe the way dozens of us did when we saw a grizzly bear mother and cub on the side of the road.  Your downtown redevelopment plan may be beautiful, but trust me, it’s not going to compare to the Grand Tetons.

And yet, like the park rangers, those of you working effectively in the public sector have far more knowledge of your job than those who you are serving.  You bring with you experience forged over a career; nobody really wants to hire a “citizen budget manager” or a development director who touts her lack of experience as a reason to get the job.  You are dedicated to serving your municipality, your agency, or your clientele, with professionalism and wisdom. 

Although they might not realize it, even the people most hostile to public sector workers have the capacity to respect and honor the work you do.  Perhaps this thought, derived from my conversation with my new Tea Party friend, will brighten your day.  But if not, and if you’re really interested in public approval, you might want to import bison or 14,000-foot mountain peaks into your office!

Thank you to all of our public sector workers for the important work you do.

Dr. Jeffrey L. Bernstein is the interim director of the EMU MPA Program and a Professor in the Political Science Department.

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