Having been a political scientist for 30 years, I have spent a lot of time observing the Missouri and other state legislatures, the U.S. Congress and local public officials. I have enjoyed watching humans as they try to get along and make policy decisions. While I have also read a lot of academic books, I am quick to agree that “it isn’t all in books.” Over the years, I have heard many thought-provoking comments that I cannot quite shake. Here are my top five:
1. Back in 1981, I interviewed an Indiana legislator about how legislators use research in making legislative decisions. After a brief conversation he said to me, “I can’t help but think that you think we don’t know what we should be doing here in the Capitol. It is just like in farming, I already know how to farm better than I farm.” Isn’t this the truth — we all know how to live healthier, work more effectively and to save more money. It is motivation and discipline that is often our obstacles, not a lack of knowledge.
2. In 1989, I attended an end-of-the-session legislator workshop organized by then-Lieutenant Governor Harriett Woods held at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. Among the notable speakers was Michael Josephson, a successful lawyer who had started a center to promote the application of ethics in American life. He asserted to the group of about 40 legislators that “it is unethical to vote on a bill you have not read and know nothing about.” Spontaneously, and in unison, practically the full room of legislators laughed loudly and practically yelled “you don’t understand how legislatures work.” The speaker paused patiently and then somewhat dramatically replied: “I understand that you can make legislatures work however you want them to work.” Josephson was right. While it is important to understand how organizations are formed and evolve, it is critical to remember at some point, at some level, humans designed them and can re-design them if they are willing.
3. Among the variety of speakers to share their stories with my classes was our late Congressman Harold Volkmer. One year, probably 1999, after he was no longer in office, he asked to give three lectures on the federal budget process because he “couldn’t get much into a 50-minute lecture.”
One of the students asked “what was your most important accomplishment in public office?” Volkmer replied instantly “my most significant accomplishment was the Reorganization Act of 1974.” I replied with surprise with “Missouri? The General Assembly?” He replied, “Yes, and it may have been more fun, too. Everyone knew one another. Congress is just too big. You spend the first few months wondering how you got there, and the rest of the time wondering how all those other people got there.”
4. Throughout the ages there have been published quite a stack of books on “representation,” dissecting how, and to what extent, elected officials should and do reflect their constituent values, interests and preferences. On a visit to the Missouri Capitol, a fearless student asked former Missouri Sen. Larry Rohrbach how “he decided between the Burkean roles of trustee or delegate.” After seeking a clarification of “who (Edmund) Burke is” and telling the student that “things are both more simple and more complicated down here,” Rohrbach replied “I try to decide how my constituents would decide if they had the same information I have.” That is a darn good answer that political scientists do not generally consider.
5. Almost every time I have guided an MU class of political science majors through the state Capitol, usually after a few weeks of nudging them to make the trip down U.S. 63, a student whispers to me, “I didn’t know that anyone could come down here and just look around.”
I try to say understandingly “yes, we can’t see where a lot of decisions are being made, but we can see a lot more than most citizens think we can.”
Academic books and articles are useful creations for learning about human governance, but as Yogi Berra reportedly quipped, “Sometimes you can observe a lot just by looking.”
This semester I have been teaching a class titled “Is America in Decline?” where we have prepared a class survey intended to provide feedback on some of the ideas we discussed and the topics on which students wrote papers. We would appreciate responses to the online survey available here. All responses are anonymous.
David Webber is an associate professor of political science at MU where he is currently teaching a course on "Is America in Decline?" He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Questions? Contact Opinion editor Elizabeth Conner.