Fools take to themselves the respect that is given to their office - Aesop (600 BC)
If you’re the kind of voter who marks every ballot strictly based on membership in either the Republican or Democratic parties, you’re half of the reason why the American experiment in self-government is no longer a democracy.
The act of voting shouldn’t be limited to a choice between two competing political philosophies that aren’t really that much different. Elections are held in order to hire the best available person to do a specific job, not to choose leaders who believe they know best how to lead us somewhere, anywhere.
One basic premise of every totalitarian system is full loyalty to Party candidates in every election. We tend to mock voters in foreign lands who fall for that, yet far too many of us right here at home remain loyal Party followers even after our chosen party acts against our own interests.
If you’re one of the many unofficial members of the Non-Voting Party, you’re the other half of the problem. You can’t have a democracy in a land where 40 percent of eligible voters can’t be bothered. We’ve just seen that in the Florida primary, where less than half of the registered Republicans in the state came out to vote.
If 85 percent of the American electorate would actually cast a ballot, many things could change. I don’t foresee that happening anytime soon, but folks who do vote can start reclaiming our government right away.
It begins at the most local levels – school boards, city councils, county commissioners and state representatives. For many national politicians, their training ground was in those types of offices. For the rest, it should have been. Changing the way we choose our local representatives could transform the national political landscape in just six years.
Change the mindset of those we elect to office in our schools, towns and counties, and we can begin to restore the primary body of state and national government – the House of Representatives. That governing body was meant to be a gathering of citizens doing public service; it was never meant to be a career, nor a means of acquiring wealth and power.
As it was envisioned more than two centuries ago, the job of state or federal representative is not a leadership position. The priorities of any representative are simple – inform the public regarding the issues of the day, listen to as many residents of a district as possible, try to determine the will of the majority, then vote accordingly.
Representatives can propose new laws. They can try to change the public attitude towards a specific piece of legislation. They are free to promote their own solution to a social problem. But they are duty-bound to vote according to the will of the majority.
That duty doesn’t prevent them from taking an unpopular position and voting their conscience. They can try to explain that vote to their constituents afterwards, and they can be held accountable at the next election. But it should take extraordinary circumstances for an elected official to defy the wishes of the general public.
Trying to assess the will of the majority was not an easy task when messages took days to reach their destination and travel between the towns and villages of a district meant several weeks on the road. It was possible, however, because there were a lot fewer people to communicate with. It’s not much easier in today’s world, even with all the tools we have available. Sadly, few of our current crop of legislators bother to try.
Instead, we’ve elected officials who vote according to their own political philosophy, and usually a vague one at that. Their objective is to lead the public in a general direction instead of accomplishing a specific task. They listen to people who can afford to come to them instead of reaching out to those who can’t. It’s no surprise that politicians generally perform poorly, but it’s our own fault – we keep hiring the same kind of people.
Voters should insist that candidates explain how they intend to represent the public instead of making speeches about where they will lead the public. We should support candidates who make a genuine committment to serve the public as best they can, regardless of their party affiliation – if we can find them.
We can’t stop the influence of money and still claim to be a free society, because we’ll probably never agree to public funding for elections. The Supreme Court has ruled that political advertising is a protected form of free speech, and that corporations are equal to people, so money now flows into political campaigns in amounts never seen before. This year we’ve already seen one individual donate $20 million directly to one single candidate, which certainly goes against the ‘one person, one vote’ spirit of democracy.
Voters need to develop an immunity to the influence that money seeks to apply. We need to become blind and deaf to every negative political ad we see and hear, for the truth does not live there. We need to ignore the usually false promises candidates make when they claim they can accomplish what their opponent cannot.
Most of all, we need to pay close attention to sources of campaign funds. Candidates who put a limit on the size of individual donations need to be supported, because the best way to counter the influence of a bucketload of money is by rejecting the sales pitch it offers.
After all, it’s our government. It can only be bought when we choose to sell it.
Rob Lafferty is a former editor of the Haleakala Times on Maui, now writing from the deep woods of Oregon’s Coast Range.