It might be unfair to say we have created the current governmental monstrosity, a wasteland where the nation’s primary political parties battle like cats and dogs, and a blank wall of partisanship prevents virtually anything from being resolved. We have, however, allowed it to grow by our own disinterest and acceptance. All too often, we elect our national representatives on the basis of ideology rather than competence, our local leaders in response to opinions that have nothing to do with local governing. Then, once these people are installed, we forget they even exist.
What we also forget, I think, is that we are hiring these office seekers to do a job on our behalf. In so many ways, we still have the power.
Nevertheless, we have given away so much of that power that it’s hard to call the current political process a “democracy.” Too many of the individuals we send to state legislatures and Congress see themselves as representing only those who voted for them. The others might as well be living in Albania for all the attention they receive.
These “representatives” rarely ask what issues are most important to us. Instead, they tell us what we should care about, according to them. Thus, we see instances when someone casts a vote because of pressure from his or her party leadership even though 70 percent of those in their district feel the other way.
When is the last time the man or woman your community sent to Congress appeared in person (or, in this pandemic age, virtually) to exchange ideas and receive comments? If you can’t remember, maybe it’s time to re-establish those lines of communication.
I’m not counting those “town meetings” that always seem to devolve into shouting matches for the benefit of TV cameras. Much more productive, I think, would be for the representative (or perhaps someone on his or her Washington staff) to block out a day and meet separately — in private — with various interest groups, a setting that would encourage candid conversation.
Imagine if you hired someone to fill this position in the real world. They wouldn’t get the job in the first place if they spent all their interview time criticizing the other job applicants. Nor would they keep it if they just disappeared after being hired, reappearing only every few months or so.
This is not about “conservative” or “liberal” politics. Rather, there are things we should all expect from our state legislators or Congresspeople that transcend different ideological perspectives. Here is a humble suggestion for a list of demands every city, town and county could reasonably present:
- Remember that we have hired you. You may be a Democrat or a Republican, but that’s not who you work for. You work for us.
- Given that, remember also that your employers are everyone who lives in the area you represent, whether they belong to Black Lives Matter or the NRA. All of them deserve to be listened to.
- We want to know exactly why you supported or opposed any piece of legislation that might have a direct effect on us. Don’t just parrot the party line. Even better, tell us before the vote comes up, so we can have some input.
- We deserve a regular update on what you’ve been doing. That includes not just what you’ve opposed, but perhaps some ideas to make our lives better. If you don’t have any, why did we hire you?
- You should provide a vehicle for online comments and an assessment of your performance.
- Someone on your staff should be hired to deal only with the concerns of voters “back home,” not in raising money for the next campaign.
- While you are certainly entitled to your personal beliefs, they should not get in the way of respectfully hearing the other side. You might even learn something.
- Leave politics for the election season. The rest of the time, you should be focused on your job, not your personal political future.
- Search for areas of compromise on issues if they seem to present themselves. It may be to your benefit to keep the community divided, but that’s not democracy.
Back in the 1980s, when I was working for a daily newspaper in Lynchburg, VA, our representative in the House of Representatives was a retired businessman named Jim Olin. In an area that was heavily Southern Baptist, he was a Unitarian; surrounded by Republicans, he was a Democrat. He had lived most of his life in Upstate New York, and he was not especially personable in the classic southern style.
That said, I’m sure a lot of the people who repeatedly voted for Olin didn’t agree with some of his ideas on foreign relations or abortion or gun control. Yet he used his business acumen to bring so many grants and infrastructure projects to the region that they obviously considered it worth losing his single Congressional vote on those issues in order to benefit from what he brought to the table economically.
I also find it encouraging that the campaign literature for my current Congressional representative, a staunch Republican who strongly defended President Trump against impeachment, puts at the top of the list that she is among the House’s most bipartisan legislators, After that, the list is peppered with the benefits she has brought to the area.
All politics is local, former Democratic House speaker Tip O’Neill once said. Yet while voters may swarm to their polling places during a presidential election year, the turnout is often minuscule for local candidates.
Isn’t that a little backwards?
Darrell Laurant is a veteran journalist who previously worked at the News & Advance (Lynchburg). He published over 7,000 pieces in three decades. Darrell has covered papal visits, the Olympics, American sports, and political issues in Virginia. He has also written a variety of books, including "Inspiration Street: Two City Blocks that Helped Change America."