Yesterday, I showed my new Votesphere application to an educator at my son’s school. He liked it and joked, “just in time for the 2020 elections. Or, maybe the 2018s”. What immediately struck me about his observation is that it is widely shared by the vast majority of Americans. We participate – well, about 50% of the electorate participates -- in presidential or mid-term elections. But, is this really the end of our influence and the full extent of our effort to improve how our democracy functions?
Elections are our republic’s best tool for selecting our political representatives, but they are poorly suited for choosing or directing policy between elections. Elections are theatre. They are competition. An exchange of barbs or insults is more interesting to watch than a debate of the finer points of corporate tax inversions. Evaluating a candidate’s physical appearance and demeanor is apparently more engaging to voters than whether they support policies to lift children from poverty. In such an environment it is easy to become cynical about politics.
Our cynicism as participants is not limited to voting. It prevents men and women of talent and character from coming forward to serve as political representatives. Who wants to wallow in the muck of an election campaign? Who relishes the thought of exposing their friends and family to the vitriol of the political arena.? So, we have a political process that not only discourages voters, but also the best among us from stepping forward to represent us.
So, what’s the solution to these insoluble problems? The solution is simple. It is the same solution that has been recommended since the formation of our democracy when Thomas Jefferson stated that, “an educated citizenry is a vital requisite for our survival as a free people." We need to educate ourselves about important issues at every level of government. Educated opinions matter. Reactions to a candidate’s latest Twitter tirade do not. We need to communicate frequently and effectively with our political representatives regarding policy matters before and after they take office. We need to become knowledgeable opinion leaders and advocates in our communities regarding issues important to us and our neighbors. If each of us tries to learn more about an important issue each day – or as little as once each week – and communicate our priorities and preferences regarding those issues to our political representatives, then we will create a more perfect union. Democracy is not a spectator sport.
Copyright © 2016 by Jeffrey Scott Szorik
The “person on the street” opinion interviews featured throughout the 2016 primaries and general election had some common themes: “none of the candidates is acceptable”, “no one is talking about the issues”, and “the nation is divided with no consensus”. Most candidates for national office used similar phrases to impugn their election opponents or proclaim the reason they should be supported. So, who imposed these divisive, unqualified, and issue avoidant candidates on the American electorate? That seems to be the most important question during an election that everyone appeared to loathe. But, the answer is no fun. It is much better to claim some larger malevolent power is imposing its will on us. It’s Wall Street. It’s the media. It’s the power brokers in the political parties. It’s billionaires buying our votes. No, it isn’t. It’s us. We have abdicated our sovereignty as citizens. We have abdicated it to small groups of people who are more than happy to fill in the void we have left.
By the way, just because we may have voted does not mean we can claim we did our civic duty. How many voters can accurately identify the opposing presidential candidates’ positions on 3, 5, 10 . . . 20 important political issues? OK. Now same question for your US senate race? We’re not done. What about your district’s congressional race? Don’t think it matters? As of this writing, there are 11,644 bills and resolutions before Congress. 466 of those issues will become law and impact our lives. Did you have a well-informed opinion about how your preferred candidate will likely vote on those issues? We are still not done. We are only about one fifth of the way through a typical ballot in a presidential election year. How well did you know the candidates, referenda, or judicial nominees that will impact your local community? These are the offices from which we recruit our future state and national leaders. Who we pick on these down ballot races will be the political leaders our children will look to in the future.
We all have excuses for not fully and effectively pursuing our civic responsibility. The issue isn’t even unique to contemporary politics. Apathy has affected every civilization great and small throughout history. JFK’s most famous quote, “ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country,” seems more relevant now than when he said it in 1961. What he knew, and what every thoughtful American before and since him knew, is that without an involved citizenry there can be no real solutions to our shared problems. In our representative democracy, political representatives are rewarded for reacting to the popular will rather than bravely championing new causes for which there is little support. The key to being an effective citizen during election season, or between elections, is to educate yourself regarding the issues most important to you, deciding what solution you prefer, and communicating this information to your political representatives.
It seems uniquely part of our national character that Americans frequently pursue campaigns of self-improvement. Whether it is our health or our wealth, we constantly engage in the challenge to improve ourselves or our condition. Perhaps more of us will take up the personal challenge to be more effective citizens. Perhaps we will stop complaining that our nominal leaders are letting us down. Perhaps we will take the lead ourselves on important issues affecting our communities. Perhaps, we will effectively communicate with our representatives and insist that they listen to our collective voices when we tell them which issues are the highest priorities to us and how we suggest those priority issues be resolved.
Let’s change our perspective and the language we use. In a representative democracy, our political representatives are not leaders. They are proxies for the priorities and solutions we entrust them with. When we stop looking to them to solve our problems and instead look to them to execute the solutions we prefer, then we can expect greater confidence in government. So, when you look for accountability and leadership in government, first start with the person in the mirror. If each of us pursues this course of action, then we will restore effectiveness to our system of government.
My name is Jeffrey Szorik. I am an average citizen with a lifelong interest in legislative politics. Like you, I would prefer our political representatives focus on the priorities & preferences of the majority of the electorate they are entrusted to represent. Restoring confidence in our political system depends on it. Join me, as together we explore how to restore 'government by the people and for the people.'