A fundamental lesson of the government classes that I teach at The University of Texas at Austin is that we get the government we deserve. As the primary season came to a close recently, I am sorry to say that the campaigns thus far showcased our government, and the candidates who want to be a part of it, in the worst possible light. Name-calling, playing loose and fast with the facts, and the politics of personal destruction dominated the airwaves. Offering solutions to the problems we face as Texans and Americans has not even been part of the dialogue. If we as citizens continue to fall for the slick television commercials or allow candidates to distract us with half untruths about their opponents, we will have to accept that we are no better than our government.
I have one of the best jobs in the world. Every year, 500 of the best and brightest young adults sit in the seats of my classrooms. I also have one of hardest jobs in the world. Current state law requires every graduate of every public college and university in Texas to take — and pass — two government courses. In two semesters, my colleagues and I have to educate our students on the basics of our government and to instill in them the virtues of civic participation in our government. If we don’t do this, we leave the future of our government in the hands of ignorant and uninspired citizens who are therefore incapable of exercising their fundamental democratic responsibilities.
At the beginning of this latest semester, these students, who aim to be future attorneys, artists and astronauts, viewed American government with the same sort of disdain that all Americans view government these days. Veterans who have to wait too long to receive basic care, government shutdowns that plague our economy and politicians who would rather grandstand than solve problems have provided proof to my students that learning about their government is a waste of their time — and mine. But as the semester continues, I teach them that the system that James Madison and the other founders devised did not prize efficiency. Exercising the levers of government is supposed to be difficult. Passing new bills requires effort. Compromise is difficult. But without it, our Constitution and the very principles of government of, by, and for the people cannot possibly succeed.
That the primaries degenerated into mud-slinging contests is to be expected. When the candidates’ views are relatively similar, we would expect the campaigns to distinguish themselves on the personal attributes of their candidates and the shortcomings of their opposition. But now that the parties have chosen their candidates, and given the serious disagreement between those candidates, this should be the time for a serious discussion of what our future should look like.
I would like to see all of the candidates running for office in this year’s general election — especially Greg Abbott, Wendy Davis, Dan Patrick and Leticia Van de Putte — make their campaigns worthy of my students’ efforts. Texas should lead the way for showing America what is good about politics and what is admirable about public service.
While Texas is blessed with a vibrant economy and a diverse and industrious workforce, it also has real problems that need solutions. Too many of our fellow citizens do not have access to basic health care. Our education leaders spend too much time managing budgets rather than innovating for future challenges. Our water, where it exists, is increasingly polluted. Traffic is getting worse, and the budgets to manage it are shrinking.
Rather than questioning one another’s motives and personal stories, I implore today’s and tomorrow’s candidates to remember what it is that the voters should want you to do: focus on outlining your solutions to these great problems and challenges.
We must hold our candidates to high standards, and we must force them to outline real solutions to real problems. If we do this, we very well may have a campaign worthy of my students’ time and something I can use in the classroom as a positive example rather than another negative one.
Sean Theriault is an associate professor of government at The University of Texas at Austin. He is an expert in party polarization in elections and voter retribution.