Monday, April 11, 2011

Many situations today have people wondering what can be done to help our political system

Previously published in the Terre Haute Tribune Star, 9/29/2007

TERRE HAUTE — With approval of the President and Congress at nearly historic lows, no doubt some wonder about our democracy. Indeed, desultory conclusions that democracy stinks but is better than any other system is hardly something likely to sustain our democratic way of life. And when you have political parties actually launching strategies to suppress votes, there is no doubt that ordinary, everyday people need to take steps to safeguard our precious democracy. In an age of big money politics, what can individuals do to strengthen our political institutions? Here are 10 simple steps they can do.

10 simple things you can do to improve politics

This is third in a series of five essays about simple things individuals can do to improve our social institutions. A social institution is a framework for solving societal problems. All societies must solve the same problems, but they do it differently. They must tie adult responsibility to children (marriage and family), socialize children into productive roles (education), solve the problem of order and leadership (politics), justify societal practices as “good” (religion), and produce and distribute needed goods and services (economy). My suggestions are not about changing our institutions as much as making the current ones, as currently defined, work a little better. Today’ s focus is on politics.

1. Get to know your neighbors. (Politics is coarse enough; at least knowing your neighbors makes the most local stuff more civil.) Public opinion polls show that Americans are fed up with the bickering and seeming inability to get anything done in Washington and our state capitals. Part of that phenomenon is due to the many, many wedge issues that have been used by our leaders to get elected. By getting to know people, you find that they don’t fit into neat categories. Yeah, your next door neighbor may be a Republican, but she might also be pro-choice, pro-environment, as well as pro-gun. Most people are NOT the activists of the parties who themselves line up so perfectly with their parties.

2. Get involved in the civic life of your community; school, church and local service groups are easy entry points. While these groups are not overtly political, they help in getting to know cross-sections of your community and make discussion easier and less nasty. Moreover, civic groups solve many community problems WITHOUT having to resort to the government. Making the government the solution to all community and social problems is little different than those states, totalitarian regimes come to mind, that in fact do solve, or claim sole responsibility to solve, all problems. Besides, having other institutional frameworks reduces the gathering power of our central, federal government.

3. Pick (at least) one local, state and national issue to follow and understand. Even if not involved, follow it in the newspapers, on the broadcast news, on the Internet. Only by being informed about issues can you really judge the positions and actions of our politicians. Also, if we don’t follow something, then we are left to judge, at the end of the political cycle, by who has the best ads, not necessarily who has or would be one to reflect our points of view on the issues we think important. To do that, you need to follow your issue and be informed about it.

4. Know who the following are: the mayor of your town (if you have one), city manager (if you have one), your city or county representative (councilman), your state representatives (with bicameral legislatures, you have a rep and a senator), your congressman, both of your senators, your governor, the president and vice president of the U.S., the speaker of the House, and the chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. Know who they are; they are among the most powerful people in our society and in your local world. There is no way to spin findings that Americans are more likely to know who celebrities are than the people who wield power over them on a daily basis. It is a measure of disengagement that threatens democracy as much, if not more, than all the money washing over politics today.

5. Vote in every election no matter what. Think about it. More people get upset at suggested changes to a schoolhouse indoctrination ritual, the Pledge of Allegiance, than get upset that eligible Americans don’t vote. There are reasonable explanations. Those who don’t vote tend not to have much at stake, meaning they are not property owners, maybe not parents, don’t have high-paying jobs. But that doesn’t explain everyone. Others give feeble explanations like “the system is corrupt, I don’t participate” or “the politicians are all the same, so what difference does it make?” Well, if you begin to follow just that one issue, then you’ll have the basis to make a difference. These excuses are more the excuses of people who don’t care to participate because they are disengaged. The more people who vote, the more the politicians have to actually pay attention to us.

6. Don’t be an ignorant voter. Pick one race that matters and make an informed choice about that one race if you do nothing else. For some of us, following politics is second nature. For many others, it is not. Don’ t base your choice on the media advertising that your candidate provides, but based on your own digging and decision making. Know why you are voting for who you vote for.

7. In the next year, attend one of the following: 1) a city council meeting; 2) a school board meeting; 3) a public forum with your state rep; 4) a public forum with your congressional representative. Few of us ever get to actually see our elected officials at work. Go watch them in their public roles. That will do more than any campaign ad, by either side, to give you a sense of both your candidates. but also what goes on in the process of democracy. Whether it inspires or sickens you, at least you know.

8. Articulate your interests, that is, on anything you take a stand on or support (issues-wise), be able to state why you hold to that position in terms of your own interests. If you oppose an increase in the minimum wage, be able to explain why doing so is contrary to your interests. In other words, how will it threaten you? Same if you are for something, how will it benefit you? In many cases, you won’t be able to find a reason, and you should begin then to separate out the issues that directly affect you and those where your interest lies in affecting others, but not necessarily yourself.

9. Be able to articulate the interests of the other side in a way the other side would not object to. Coupled with item 8, these two make for more civil politics. Being able to articulate the other side’s viewpoints doesn’t mean you have to accept them, but it shows taking the other side’s views seriously.

10. Know your values. Many issues are highly emotional, like abortion, stem cell research and capital punishment, to name a few. The highly emotional portion of our response to these types of issues has to do with a feeling of threat to values we hold dear. Responding to the values and not the fear should make for greater understanding as well as finding additional grounds to address these issues.

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