Part of the trouble with our current system of governance is that it takes so long and costs so much to gain and retain office, that only someone comfortably wealthy or in the pocket of wealthy business interests can afford to run. Factored into the equation is the tremendous amount of scrutiny most public figures, in particular candidates are subjected to and the enormous number of hoops one must jump through to prove oneself worthy of high office. Oftentimes the election isn’t won by the best candidate but by the candidate who’s most determined to get elected. In addition, the corrupting influence of power and money can turn even the most altruistic of individuals totally against the ideals that caused him or her to run for office in the first place.
The situation in the US is compounded by what I call two-party tyranny, or the belief fostered by the major political parties that only the democrats or the republicans are qualified to govern and that independent candidates have no chance of winning. This is due, in part to the actions of politicians of both stripes crafting the laws that keep them in office to the exclusion of all others. It is nearly impossible for a candidate to be elected above the local level without belonging to one party or the other. The news media is very much in active collusion by choosing to ignore or belittle candidates not of the major parties, thereby undermining the credibility of independent or viable third party candidates. Since most debates are arranged by the media in conjunction with the major parties, it becomes even more difficult for candidates outside the mainstream to even participate in the process.
Changing the system takes time and patience, but most of all, relentless determination, and most people simply give up after repeated setbacks. The religious right, on the other hand, rode a single issue, abortion, into control of one of the two major political parties in this country. Now, if we don’t like what the democrats are doing, our only option is to turn the government over to a group of religious extremists, whose only solutions to all social problems are to lower taxes and re-institute prayer in schools, all the while vilifying homosexuals and interfering with the reproductive freedom of women. For those who don’t like that, we’re left with a party run by a bunch of weak-willed corporate shills who don’t make any moves without consulting the latest opinion poll. Given these options the question isn’t why so few people vote, but why anyone bothers to vote at all.
This is not to say that there aren’t good people on both sides who sincerely want to make a difference and who view politics as a means toward that end, but their voices are increasingly drowned out by the endless drone of useless political theater which substitutes for intelligent discourse in the media. The best way to be noticed is to be totally outrageous, regardless of how abhorrent ones’ ideas are when presented. The rise of Donald Trump in the presidential polls shows how cynical and self-serving the process has become. When one isn’t certain if he or she is watching Jerry Springer or the latest partisan debate for high office, the problem becomes all too clear.
The situation has gotten so bad that our elected representatives at the national level are completely at a loss as to how to carry out the jobs they were elected to perform. They spend so much time and effort trying to gain and retain power that they’ve lost sight of the fact that campaigning for office is not the job they were sent to Washington to do. At best, they spend three months at work and the rest of the time raising money and bashing their political opponents. The only thing worse is when they do show up for work and pass legislation that curtails another of our freedoms, or waste time and taxpayer funds conducting hearings aimed at hurting the opposition solely for political gain.
Ultimately, the solution rests with the electorate. When we point the finger of blame, we need to begin with ourselves, because we’ve allowed the situation to get so far out of hand by not taking the process seriously. Democracy starts with local action. Find good people, encourage them to run for office, support them, and, above all, insist on transparency and accountability from them. The electorate in this country has abdicated its responsibility to hold our “leaders” accountable for their decisions, and the professional politicians in charge of the system know this. Is there any wonder they feel no need whatsoever to account for their activities? If one’s representative to Congress only moved to the region shortly before the election and spends most of his or her time outside the district, how can that person be expected to know what’s best for the constituency he or she is supposed to serve? Scenarios like this happen again and again in US elections and apathetic citizens, who refuse to take a few minutes out of their time to register and vote simply let it happen, then spend the duration between elections complaining about how bad things are.
Most people in the US behave as though politics is just something that happens to someone else. They believe the political system is rigged and there is nothing anyone can do to fix it. While I agree the system is rigged, I do believe there’s something we can do about it, though it won’t be easy or quick. The system we’re dealing with in the US didn’t spring up overnight, and outside of complete overthrow, which usually causes more problems than it solves, it won’t be fixed in one fell swoop. Still, I believe we should try, otherwise we’ll become increasingly disconnected to a system which, despite all its problems, still makes vital decisions which have a huge impact on the quality of the lives we lead.
The first step is to be informed. We live in an age where a massive amount of information is at our fingertips. The White House, Congress and Supreme Court not to mention most state legislatures and local governments have all their votes, rulings and dispatches online. Most members of Congress have sites where they publish news and official information about their activities in Washington, their voting record, and contact information both locally and in the capitol. If an important vote is held and one’s representative in Congress isn’t there due to a political fundraiser or other less important speaking engagement, the constituents deserve to know why that was deemed more important than serving the needs of those being represented. Equally, if a representative votes for legislation that has a damaging impact on his or her home region or against a bill that would have benefited the folks back home, the citizens have a right to ask why and change representation at the first opportunity if not satisfied with the answer. We voted them in, and we can vote them out.
Of course, building a new system would take decades, starting from scratch, and reforming the current system might take just as long. From FDR’s New Deal to LBJ’s Great Society was a span of thirty to forty years and the conservative movement now controlling the republican party started to take hold while I was in college thirty years ago. Most political movements begin in reaction to what’s happening in the country at a given time and take hold gradually. Often, by the time its leaders finally attain power, society has begun to swing back in the other direction. Politics can change in a revolution, but it’s more likely to do so by evolution with gradual steps.
While it may at times seem futile to participate, it’s only through such participation that things begin to improve. History has shown that when the electorate does bother to show up changes take place. It’s in the politicians’ best interest to keep voter turnout low. If we want real change, it’s in our hands to make it happen and we should be responsible enough to accept the challenge.