Academic journal article Canadian Parliamentary Review

A School for Politicians and Political Staffers

Academic journal article Canadian Parliamentary Review

A School for Politicians and Political Staffers

Article excerpt

Discussions about diverse public policy issues like ethical behaviour, accountability and voter apathy often come back to issues of education. What are our schools and universities doing to address problems that have emerged in the political processes that underlie our democracy? This article discusses the creation and operation of an institute devoted to the formal training of politicians and persons interested in working for politicians.

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The creation of a formal curriculum in politics, taught at a university and leading to a degree, can be the subject of some considerable controversy. In the United States, a number of prominent individuals were dubious about the creation of a professional school of politics. For example, when my school first opened its doors in Washington, the president of the American Association of Political Consultants scoffed at the idea of a master's degree in politics. Then, somewhat later, Bill Clinton's close personal adviser, George Stephanopolus, was quoted as saying that you cannot teach politics in a classroom. That was just before he left the White House and joined the faculty of Columbia University to teach politics.

At the other end of the spectrum, academics have sometimes disparaged the applied curriculum as less respectable than scholarship aimed at theory-building. In the United States, political science has become increasingly abstract and theory oriented over the past three decades and a curriculum of practical politics seems a step backward to those pushing this trend.

Finally, any number of journalists have criticized the idea of a school devoted to training more spin doctors, media manipulators and opinion chasers. Hostility to politics and politicians translates into disdain for the process of educating more of the same.

Nonetheless, despite all the criticism, over the last 20 years, the Graduate School of Political Management at George Washington University in Washington D.C. has grown and prospered, students have come in increasing numbers, been educated, and moved on as alumni into promising and productive careers. And, we believe, they are practicing politics with greater skill earlier in their careers and with a more enhanced sense of ethics in their work.

The school was founded in the belief that democratic politics have changed greatly in the last thirty years, becoming ever more specialized and ever more dominated by technical knowledge and expertise.

While these developments may be more observable in the United States, I think it is possible to observe the technologies of communication changing politics in many areas of the world.

Let me reflect on why and how this trends is proceeding. In many areas of politics--in lobbying, campaigning, and issues management--the old personal networks of yesterday are being supplemented by technical means of building support, means that can be taught and learned. The skills and power of yesterday's politicians were rooted in a elaborate network of individual contacts.

Who you knew was critically important. Who would return your phone calls, who you could ask for a favor. And while "people skills" are still tremendously important in political life, one is struck by how different is today's politics. Contemporary politicians build their support, constituencies and power through adroit use of cable television, focus group research, video and audiotapes, computer-driven mail lists, micro-targeted communications through a variety of channels, internet websites, e-mail programs, and so forth. They manoeuver in a world in which legislation is influenced as much by public opinion polls and 30 second advocacy ads, as by the smoozing and backslapping of lobbyists in the capitol corridors.

It is clear that these changes have produced the commercialization of politics. As technical knowledge breeds specialization, and specialized knowledge generates proprietary expertise, individuals and companies are able to charge for their services. …

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