I’ve never considered myself a particularly optimistic person. Having grown up reading Camus, Golding, and Plath, I matured, naturally, believing in the absolute worst that humanity had to offer. But there must have been an inkling of optimism, driven primarily by naïveté or perhaps a self-aggrandized sense of self, that has made me an aspiring policy maker in 2017.
In 2017, every day came with its own doomsday trifecta of a natural disaster wreaking havoc on people’s livelihoods, a disavowal of an institution, and a blow to democracy at large.
With every breaking news alert, the world order shifted. The challenges we seek to address, or we said we were going to address in our applications anyway, those challenges become thornier and more wicked with every iPhone ping. Students hoping to join the State Department after graduation are left wondering whether it will cease to exist before they get assigned to their first posting. Those interested in joining the EPA are seeing the institution dismantled from within, with grave repercussions to America’s global standing but also an immense impact on smaller countries all over the world.
An example of this is reading Albert Hirschman’s famous treatise Exit, Voice & Loyalty earlier this year, something Eyal Press has written about here:
Reading Albert Hirschman (and Michael Wolff) in Trump's Washington
In 1970, the economist Albert Hirschman published a short book outlining the choices available to public officials…
Readings like Hirschman and skills learned in class become obsolete two hours later. As policymakers, we subscribe to the safety innate in following protocol. We believe in the longevity of institutions and are taught skills with the idea that even the most pernicious problems facing the world today can be solved, incrementally, by mastering the tools of policy. That is not the case in 2017 with the outright dismissal of due process; ACA repeal bills drafted in secrecy, consultation efforts scrapped, and decision makers inundated with five hundred page omnibus bills that obfuscate the egregious impact it will have on Americans.
Worse than the growing obsolescence of the material taught in the classroom is the existential nature of studying policy in 2017. A deluge of information and misinformation, or fake news, is immobilizing our society today and undermining our education. Be it with how trivial it feels to be pursuing government reform at a time when policies in place are ending lives of the most vulnerable or how every policy memo written could be time spent on protesting, calling Congress, or writing another more pressing policy memo.
But aspiring policymakers are students of history too. Or they should be, at least. It is Hannah Arendt, in which we seek solace. It is in noticing the patterns of the dismantling of democracy today and the similarity in other parts of the world that should give us hope, hope in the swing of the pendulum, hope in the will of the people to change the course of history. As aspiring policymakers we must look outward and not be insular — look at the dismantling of social citizenship as we know it in Russia, Turkey, and China or the predominance of corruption in Venezuela, Brazil and India to seek solidarity and build coalitions. It is more than a sigh of relief to identify others going through a similarly bleak doomsday machine, instead it is a way to reckon with our present and shape our future.
It is now when we need more policy makers in society, when there is a war on facts and numbers and logic and empathy. It is now when we need more people who study policy as the Administration becomes increasingly reliant on us being policy illiterate or unwilling to wade through the deluge of misinformation or worse, apathetic. It is a time to learn the skills we need to fight for progress and if and when our tools fail us, it will be the time to develop new tools and share them indiscriminately with those who are also at the forefront of the fight. Studying policy in 2017 is an exercise in futility, except when it’s not and instead is the test of our lifetime.