What’s wrong with government?
I know, you think you know the answer, but I’m pretty sure you don’t. Because the problem isn’t lobbyists, greedy politicians, lazy government workers or even Citizen’s United...
I realize, you may not want to hear that, but not wanting to hear something doesn’t make it any less true. (Or entitle you to an “alternative” truth.)
If you don’t care or you care more about being right and blaming others than solving the problem, then just stop reading now. This piece will be a waste of your time.
But if you do care…if you’re horrified or even scared about the direction our government is currently headed and you want to do something about it...like really do something....then it’s time for a long hard look in the mirror.
Our government was designed to be responsive to the will of its people.
It’s true. The Founding Fathers did not include term limits in the Constitution, because they believed elections and the simple fact that elected officials would want to get reelected, would make them responsive to the will of their constituents. They, however, also expected, that we — “the people” — would take our government as seriously as they did.
We do not take government seriously.
The vast majority of us are “not informed,” nor do we make an effort to be informed. Instead, we expect politics and political news to outrage and entertain us.
Admit it, you know more about whatever pseudo-scandalous thing happened on a given day, than any policy that may or may not have been enacted by Congress...just as you give your attention to the political figures, who give fiery speeches and threaten to blow things up, versus the ones who can get into the policy weeds and build consensus. Seriously. There are 535 voting members of Congress, whose names do you know?
Yes, I’m aware that reading substantive articles on trade agreements and building ordinances isn’t necessarily fun, but neither is mowing your lawn or doing sit-ups and we tend to see those as worthy investments of our time. Is the state of your yard and abdominals really that much more important to you than the laws your government enacts on your behalf? More importantly, do you want a government that outrages and entertains you or one that takes the business of governing seriously...because there’s a reason, we’ve got the former.
At the risk of torturing one too many many metaphors, do you know why so many TV series are getting smarter and more nuanced? It’s because TV viewers are getting more and more sophisticated. We’re no longer impressed with cheap tricks and tropes, so shows are being written to appeal to our growing appetite for well-drawn characters and complex storylines, that aren’t easily resolved in an hour. Well, the same could hold true for government, except instead of getting more sophisticated, we’re getting less.
This lack of sophistication might not be such a big problem, if you weren’t also in the habit of voting for the candidate, who agrees with you the loudest. But you do. You know you do and elected officials know you do, too. They also know you tend to freak the eff out on anyone, who has the audacity to say something other than what you want to hear. And not only do politicians — and anyone who works in and around politics — know this, more than a few media outlets keep their lights on by combing through countless hours and pages of government work (and everyone’s Twitter histories) to find a sentence or two they can package with just the right amount of “can-you-believe-what-this-government-related-person-said??!!!” outrage to send you on a click-crazy bender. (Yeah, that’s right, you’ve got the media producing government coverage like the folks over at Bravo put together a Real Housewives’ episode.)
You see what you’re doing?
You know very little about policy and how government works — in fact, much of what you think you know is barely true...if that — but your voting and media habits actively deter anyone involved in the process from doing or saying anything that might suggest you’re wrong. Meanwhile, you’re encouraging elected officials to pursue policies that may/may not be grounded in reality, because you make it clear, that’s what you want to hear.
Think about it. It’s hard to find a government program that isn’t underfunded, right now, and yet, Members of Congress spend more time talking about initiatives to end government waste than just about anything else. Why? Well, I’m guessing it has something to do with the fact that according to polls and focus groups, Americans are more universally concerned about government waste than just about anything else.
I also know several Republican Members of Congress, who wanted to write, sponsor or support legislation to fix various issues with the Affordable Care Act, but didn’t. Why? Because they knew it would get reported that they were “abandoning their pledge to repeal Obamacare,” and that the resulting supporter backlash would be so fierce, that they’d draw a primary challenge, before they even got a chance to explain themselves. And before you start thinking this is just a Republican problem, let’s not forget how many on the left react, when a Democrat even utters the word “trade.”
I know...but what about money in politics? What’s the point of taking this stuff seriously, when there are so many big powerful interests writing big checks. Right?
Look, I won’t lie and say that money isn’t a problem, but I do know that campaign contributions aren’t “lining the pockets of candidates.” That money funds ads and strategists and “get out the vote” operations and other things that have the hypothetical ability to influence votes.
Well, do you know what has more power than the hypothetical ability to influence votes?
So, what can you do about it?
Well, for starters...
Stop bitching about money in politics and change what influences you. (e.g. Stop being taken in by 30 second attack ads and cheap political tricks.) Learn more, so you can demand better.
Stop getting excited every time a politician tells you exactly what you want to hear and stop freaking out every time they say something different.
Start supporting candidates who are brave enough to be honest with you, even when that means telling you you’re wrong. I guarantee if enough people start supporting those candidates, more and more politicians will follow suit.
Stop clicking on salacious headlines that exhort you to be outraged that some political figure said some terrible thing. Not only are you missing the forest for the trees, you’re discouraging politicians from asking important questions and engaging on issues, for fear that they might misspeak or utter a clause that can be taken out of context. If you really must know what they said and whether or not you should lose your mind about it, go see what the New York Times or Wall Street Journal, Associated Press or a site like, Vox has to say about it, because they’re more likely to put the statement in context versus reduce an entire career or policy debate to a few incendiary words. And if those outlets aren’t reporting on it, odds are that first source was just trying to manipulate you into either supporting their cause or just clicking on their site, because your click makes them money. And when you allow yourself to be manipulated into clicking a pseudo political scandal YOU ARE PART OF THE PROBLEM. Put a Post-It on your screen if you need a reminder…just stop doing it. Reserve your outrage for things that matter.
Speaking of which...while you’re on those news sites, read some less salacious coverage of tax policy or foreign affairs or election reform. In fact, set aside twenty minutes each day to go learn stuff about government and government policy that you don’t already know. Hell, you can do it, while you’re doing your cardio.
I know it may seem dull at first, but I guarantee, the more you learn, the more interesting it’ll get. And the more you click on those stories, the more talented writers on other sites will turn their talents to making those dense policy topics as much fun to read as a Game of Thrones recap. (Not that it should have to be fun for you to care.) And the more you know, the more you’ll be able to immediately identify fake news for what it is. The more you’ll understand what’s really going on and how you can impact the process, because you can’t impact a process you don’t understand (at least not for the better). And the more you understand, the more you’ll be able to educate and elevate those around you, so they can impact the process too.
Yes, I know, you are only one person and you probably can’t rescue our democracy all on your own. Which is why you should share this piece or the points it raises with your friends and family, and pledge to change together. Start a discussion group to talk about issues or a support group to stop clicking. For next months book club, why not pick a book on energy policy, prison reform or the conflict in Syria?
But just because you may not be able to save our democracy by yourself, doesn’t mean it can be saved without you. It can’t.
Because the truth is: your government takes its cues from you, and it won’t change, unless you do.