July 28, 2014

The Leadership Void: Profiles in Cowardice

Florida's elected officials say they would love to reform the tax structure, "reinvent" the bureaucracy and address the state's other urgent needs. But they claim the voters won't let them. Many Floridians, the politicians complain, are like the Cincinnati husband and wife who moved to Florida years ago. The couple returns to Cincinnati for the summers, subscribes to a Cincinnati newspaper, sends the children to an Ohio university and plans to be buried in a Cincinnati cemetery. This "Cincinnati syndrome," policy makers assert, makes it difficult to generate popular support for tackling Florida's problems.

I have studied public opinion for decades, and I do not buy this excuse for a minute. If many Floridians are weakly attached to the state, it is not because they are transplants but instead because Florida's public officials have been afraid to advocate controversial policies, even when the policies have been essential to the state's future. Left unchallenged and uninformed, Florida voters have stayed complacently rooted in their most short-sighted, selfish concerns.

All mass communities, Florida included, reflect the level of public debate presented to them by political candidates and elected officials. Mass communities can be excited by appeals to their emotions or prejudices, made angry with ideologies of blame or raised to high levels of sacrifice when inspired by a noble cause. This century's experience with southern vigilantism, McCarthyism, Soviet communism and European fascism shows that modern electorates are anything but detached and skeptical; to the contrary, they are frighteningly easy to arouse and manipulate.

Like most myths, Florida's myth of the hostile, disloyal public survives because it is based on a grain of truth. Each day, about 650 residents are added to Florida's population. To some extent Florida is indeed an electorate of transplants.

However, this does not necessarily mean that the Florida public cannot be mobilized for a civic purpose. Although the Florida electorate contains many newcomers, the state's rapid population growth may actually make the citizenry easier to inspire, rather than more difficult. Many people have moved to Florida in search of new opportunities. While they may retain a nostalgic attachment to their previous homes, this attachment is insufficient to keep them from relocating. The very fact that they have moved to Florida shows that they are thinking more about the future than the past.

Certainly, population growth per se does not appear to cause public hostility to government or detachment from civic duty. Look at the United States as a whole. It is peopled almost exclusively by immigrants, and yet it is one of the most patriotic nations in the world. Streaming from distant lands, its citizens have built systems of transportation, defense, higher education and other public services unmatched anywhere on the globe.

The same is true of California, the state with the nation's highest amount of population growth for decades. During its period of greatest expansion, the California public supported massive investments in public services and facilities. A backlash against California property taxes did not occur until the 1970s, after the state already had successfully built its most expensive public facilities.

Even in Florida, public opinion data challenge the image of the selfish newcomer. Data from the Florida Annual Policy Survey, a survey of Florida residents conducted by the Survey Research Laboratory at Florida State University, shows that the voters who are most resistant to taxes are those who have lived in Florida the longest.

In conjuring up the image of a "Cincinnati syndrome" in state politics, Florida's leaders have made a common mistake in the way they think of the electorate. They have assumed that the Florida citizenry already has its mind made up. The idea of a "Cincinnati syndrome" implies that the electorate is difficult to stir because it is indifferent to Florida's needs.

Florida's public officials are not alone in mistakenly viewing the electorate as self-formed. Journalists, pundits and scholars make the same mistake when they suggest that the public has opinions on issues not yet debated by political candidates and office holders. In reality, although respondents in public opinion surveys will answer just about any questions posed to them, often they do not have real opinions on political issues unless the issues have been on the news for weeks.

Florida's leaders are right about their constituents being difficult to lead, but the difficulty does not stem from inflexible attachments to other states or from any other rigid opinions. Rather, Florida has a challenging citizenry because the state's electorate is extremely diverse, fragmented and politically unsophisticated. The public's opinion is not "out there" to be followed or managed; it must be forged by dialogue among top leaders.

The Florida public is composed of many distinct opinion groups: midwestern seniors concentrated on the southwest coast, indigenous African Americans living along south Florida's I-95 corridor, northeastern retirees residing in Broward County, "Crackers" in rural central Florida and the Panhandle, "Conchs" in the Keys, Cuban immigrants in Miami, university professors in Gainesville and Tallahassee, Palm Beach socialites, military retirees around Pensacola, business executives in the large cities ... the list could go on.

Extensive public opinion research both nationally and in Florida has proven that people in groups such as these simply do not have pre-formed opinions on a wide range of issues. Each group has its own set of narrowly focused concerns. One is worried about the economy, another about civil rights and another about health care, immigration, tourism, the arts or something else.

The key to forging a collective will among these diverse groups is not avoiding the tough issues, but facing them squarely. Until Florida's leaders begin to take visible stands on tax reform, budget restructuring, urban sprawl and other pressing issues, the citizenry will remain blind to its common problems and unaware of its shared interests. A strong civic culture is neither given by circumstances nor diluted by population growth; it is created through shared struggles. To rephrase a favorite saying of Lieutenant Governor Buddy MacKay, a community without leadership is just a crowd. Floridians will come together politically when their leaders start insisting that voters face reality.

Lance deHaven-Smith is associate director of the Florida Institute of Government and director of the Askew School of Public Administration and Policy at Florida State University. This article is adapted from his monograph, "The Florida Voter," soon to be published by the Florida Institute of Government.

Tags: Florida Small Business, Politics & Law, Business Florida

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