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.
Throughout history, it has never been a good strategy for people to wait for government to improve itself or to assign to government the care of our lives, the assurance of our liberty, and the expectation that government best understands what the pursuit of happiness means for us and the people important to us. Once a particular government is in place, its goal is to stay in place and to continue the policies of whatever group or source of influence put it in power.
Governments respond to the dominant source of influence from which the opportunity to govern is derived. If money and your political party brought you to power, it will be money and your political party that retain the greatest influence on your positions. Real change – whether change is described as good or bad, big or small – only occurs when there is change in the allocation of influence among the governed. This is how voting in elections work. This is how voting in legislatures work. On the more extreme side, this is how revolutions work.
In the United States, most of our change comes in small, peaceful reallocations of influence. Larger changes only register when reviewed on a multigenerational timeline. However, we have had a number of instances where attempts to reallocate government influence have been more acute. The biggest and bloodiest attempt to change influence was the Civil War. Other large scale reallocations of influence have included the Suffragette Movement, Civil Rights, American Indian Wars, and most recently, Gay Rights.
Judging from the news that dominates print, online, and broadcast media at home and abroad, the US and many other nations are facing a crisis in confidence in government. This crisis of confidence did not develop overnight. The antecedents that ultimately lead to major changes are a long time in coming, even if the defining moment of change appears to be spontaneous. For several decades, US citizens have watched as confidence in our representative government erodes. Whether it is political gridlock in Congress, the current level of incivility and racism in political discourse in presidential elections, or federal, state and local governments amassing unsustainable levels of debt, failing to maintain basic levels of services, or kicking the can down the road on our most intransigent problems – the problems with our current state of governance have been exhaustively described, documented, and quantified.
So, it is clear change must happen. Only two questions remain. How it will happen and when will it happen. So, let’s answer both of those questions. Change starts here and now. It starts with me. And, it starts with you. In a representative democracy there is no other way to achieve the change we say we desire. We must be the source of it.
As you look around for ways to leverage your personal influence, try using Votesphere. Votesphere is a quick and easy to use tool to organize your personal priorities and preference and disseminate them to the people who govern, or want to govern us. Votesphere employs some simple tactics to consolidate and strengthen our influence.
First, we need to figure out what is truly important to each of us. It is imperative that we understand our own priorities and preferences beyond superficial labels of political identity such as “liberal”, “conservative”, or “moderate”. Second, we must loudly and persistently make our priorities known to our representatives. Social media has become the megaphone of our age. Votesphere captures our individual voices and delivers them in compelling detail to our representatives. Third, we must insist that the priorities for which there is majority consensus be the first ones addressed and solved by our government. Fringe issues and charismatic zealots will be less important in the face of overwhelming consensus of which issues should be addressed and how they should be solved. Because Votesphere will make such information readily available to everyone, failure of our officials to address the people’s priorities and agenda will be cause for removal of the representative at the next election and diminished influence between elections. This is how a representative democracy is supposed to work.
The United States – and the world for that matter – should not be characterized as perpetually in a state of good versus evil, us versus them, liberal versus conservative. Life is not binary. Life is rich in possibilities and infinite variations of how to solve the problems that confront us individually and communally. Let’s resist that lazy attempts to label who we are and what we believe. Let’s show each other how well rounded we are and that well informed choices can lead to a better nation and a better world for all of us.
Copyright © 2016 by Jeffrey Scott Szorik
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.'