On June 7, nine Minneapolis City Council members at a rally announced their intent to defund the city’s police department. On July 28, President Donald Trump again promoted hydroxychloroquine as a COVID-19 treatment, against FDA recommendations. Both of these actions are simply the latest examples of how politicians make political promises or policy statements for personal gain and in disregard for facts. Both are examples of failures of leadership, political pandering, and point to the problems of personal politics in the age of ignorance.
Years ago I wrote “American Politics in the Age of Ignorance: Why Lawmakers Choose Belief Over Research.” It made two points. One, policy making should be evidence-based. Good policy should be constructed on the best available evidence, data, or research available. Two, so much of policy fails to meet this standard, often because lawmakers willfully ignore the evidence and instead choose to act for personal benefit or at the behest of special interests. The result is that too much policy fails, public money is wasted, and government is far less effective than it could be. Refusing to enact evidence-based policy also yields public cynicism toward government and sets reform up to fail.
Varieties of political ignorance
Political ignorance is not limited to indifference to scientific or social science evidence. This is what Donald Trump has done consistently when it comes to the pandemic. From the beginning of the pandemic he has been in denial of its seriousness, often disregarding Dr. Anthony Fauci and other experts’ advice when it comes to precautions, such as mask wearing.
There is also a different type of political ignorance. This is when public officials ignore the legal constraints on their behavior or propose policy abandonment and change without considering the consequences or offering alternatives. Again, Trump is an example of both. Consistently he has made policy statements — such as recently implying that he can change or postpone federal elections — when clearly the law and the Constitution say the contrary. He has also endorsed repealing the Affordable Care Act without providing a viable policy alternative. The U.S. government is full of attorneys and policy analysts whom the president should have consulted prior to making statements or promises.
But Minneapolis City Council is also guilty of political ignorance. Whether defunding the police is a good idea is a matter for public debate. But the way the council has advocated this issue has been a failure. The first mistake was nine council members standing in front of a crowd announcing their intent to defund the police. One problem was that such a policy position possibly violated the Minnesota Open Meetings Law. Nine council members appeared to arrive at a final decision on a matter of public policy that was not decided upon in an official meeting. Some might claim at this rally was only speech making, but the fact that Minneapolis City Council fast tracked their idea to get it on the ballot this November and that they continue to advocate this position suggests that by the time this rally occurred nine of them had already made up their minds on the issue, contrary to state law.
Didn’t do their homework
Additionally, when these nine members spoke they did so without consulting the law. It seemed as if they were unaware of the City Charter mandating both that they have a police force and a minimum funding level for them. They also seemed unaware when they proposed an alternative to the police that state law governs peace office licensing and training, that there are state laws regarding collective bargaining and labor unions that might apply, and that there was a recent Minnesota Supreme Court decision that might limit their ability. Had council members done their job competently and done their homework — which includes consulting their city attorney, whom they are already paying, they might have realized all this.
In business and for nonprofits in Minnesota and across the country there is something called the business judgment rule. This rule requires board members to act as fiduciaries for their organizations and requires that they make their decisions based upon the based available evidence or information. Ignorance is no excuse; you cannot fail to do your homework. This is what at least nine Minneapolis City Council members did, and thankfully the city’s Charter Commission, as it was supposed to do, served as a check on this political ignorance.
What are the policy alternatives?
The other major failure of Minneapolis City Council was its inability or dereliction in offering policy alternatives. If police are to be defunded what does that really mean? There is merit to putting more money into social service and education programs, but what was their proposal? What was and is their plan to address violent crime in the city? Some point to Camden, New Jersey as a successful example of defunding the police and crime going down, but was that a result of defunding the police, privatizing it, or a normal consequence of “what goes up (crime rate) must go down” over time? We do not know. A case study of one city proves little if anything and, if it does, what was it that worked in Camden? Doing some policy research before major policy overhaul would be good and the failure to do so is another mistake.
Yes, in some cases crises demand immediate action, but that is no excuse for acting without knowing what you are doing. George Floyd’s death was tragic and something needed to be done. But his killing did not come out of nowhere. Minneapolis’ history of police use of force and racial disparities in education, housing, and criminal justice have been known for years, yet this and previous City Councils failed to act. Dereliction of duty is as much a form of political ignorance as is simply doing something for the sake of looking like one is doing something, especially if there is no evidence it will work.
A difference between being an advocate and a public official
There is nothing wrong with advocates who want a revolution and who want to change the world. They should not necessarily be expected to have the solutions. But there is a difference between being an advocate and a public official. For the latter, as the Beatles once sang: “You say you got a real solution. Well, you know, we’d all love to see the plan.”
Public officials who advocate without a plan — or even worse, without consulting the evidence or gathering the information necessary to make good choices — are simply pandering for personal gain.
David Schultz is a Hamline University professor of political science. He also holds an appointment at the University of Minnesota law school. He writes the blog Schultz’s Take, where this commentary first appeared. Schultz’s latest book is “Presidential Swing States: Why Only Ten Matter.”
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