We the People

The HBO miniseries John Adams is a compelling, highly effective dramatization about the founding of the United States of America. If you haven't yet seen it, I recommend renting it. You'll come away feeling, at very least, the spirit of urgency that compelled the founding fathers to negotiate independence, and capture the perilous, lightening in a bottle circumstance that spawned our nation over two centuries ago.

The story of our founding fathers has been so overly mythologized, and the founding fathers themselves so deified, that that our Declaration of Independence, Constitution, Bill of Rights and subsequent Constitutional Amendments are sacred documents on par with the Bible itself. The Constitution, in particular, is subject to some very fundamental interpretation. The Tea Party movement, along with Constitutional scholars like Justice Anton Scalia and self-professed scholars like Glenn Beck, draw tangible conclusions from the words of the documents, conclusions that lock out modern day notions of fluid Constitutionality. Other constitutional scholars feel that, as with fundamentalist biblical interpretation, neglecting context in any work often deprives words of the spirit in which they were intended.

The danger of any fundamentalist interpretation is that it can be used to promote social agendas that don't work if woven into the current fabric of our society. It is especially important, then, that we glean from their words a certain spirit, and that whatever immovable objects materialize from the reading of those sacred words must be objects we can all agree serve the common good. The danger of fussing over meanings of words in the Constitution is the same danger that faces those who disagree on the words of the Bible - endless war can break out over a no-win argument over meaning and intent in a changing society. We are currently in the midst of culture wars over this very topic as it relates to the Constitution.

Because of the way that politics are represented in the media, we are often given the impression - and some of it is sadly, sadly true - that Congress has become an aristocracy and a plutocracy. Right now, the wealthy are elected to prominent offices because the system is set up that way. This is true when it comes to our Election system, which was given the death blow by Citizens United, a decision which allowed Corporations the right to give virtually unlimited money as free speech. Non-wealthy are not inhibited from running, but the higher the office, the more money becomes an issue. There is also the matter of time and resources. In our current system, it often appears that we serve elected representatives. It should be the other way around, but it's not, and for that, the very citizens who need representation don't genuinely have it, and those in power get to interpret what they claim their constituents want. They are calling all the shots.

We often forget a hugely important reason we elect representatives in the first place. Opinions and controversies and grievances are messy things, especially in a diverse society. It falls to the representative to communicate these issues concisely and effectively, without the noise and the flack that occurs when you give a single megaphone to a crowd of thousands. It also falls on the representative to take a majority viewpoint and make it sound as universal as possible. That, in a word, is politicking.

The existence of Corporate lobby in Washington practically guarantees that agendas will be infused and colored with interests that either aren't in the public good or only benefit a certain constituency. It therefore becomes the task of the politician to make even the most self-serving facets of proposed laws sound good for all. Political skill is put in the service of the common good, and at the same time, can be funneled toward private interests of wealthy donors or constituents. Knowing the difference between whether a law or proposal benefits or harms your community is often next to impossible. However, there are two main thrusts driving the political narrative in our country today, and when it comes to distinguishing the two, there is no confusion.

If you lean to the right, you feel that citizens have been brainwashed into a kind of learned dependence on a Welfare State. This learned dependence has, according to some, stripped us of our ability to help ourselves and has tied us inexorably to a bloated and wasteful central Government. This dependence has created vast bureaucracies that don't create wealth, don't help the impoverished, and only result in higher taxes and an out of control deficit. This sentiment, in fact, encapsulates the Republican argument for gaining control of the White House, and accurately sums up much of the Libertarian sentiment that has dominated the political landscape for the last few years.

If you lean to the left, you feel that citizens have been taught to believe that private enterprise (the free market system) functions more effectively than Government in providing us with goods and social services, and that we should place our faith in a leaner, growth driven economy dictated more by Individual States' rights rather than one Central edict passed down from Washington. People who lean to the left feel that this growth driven economy is inherently exploitative, since its very existence stands on shareholder directives, rather than citizen ones. The left leaning citizen feels that Corporate influence in Government, rather than Government itself, is the true evil, one that results in disproportionate wealth distribution and the valuing of one kind of work over another.

That Government is prone to huge fits of waste and inefficiency is not up for debate. What is up for debate is whether a labyrinthine bureaucracy can be excised from private influences, pared down and made to function as a more direct Representation of its citizenry. As a result, you have a Government that is quite literally and with no interpretation necessary 'of, by and for the people.' It can lose its weight and shake off the tyranny of exploitative, private influence all at once. This is a middle way in the sense that it pleases both sides, but not a middle way at all, because no one loses. It is arguable that this spirit of limited, representative Government was the very intention of the Founding Fathers when they railed against despotic tyranny. It was their intention when they endowed private citizens with the power of public action. It might be inferred by the early words of the founding Fathers that entities like Monarchies and Monopolies would be wholly discouraged from impeding this public action, particularly voting.

Voting is an act of self-representation that allows us to choose the manner in which we are represented. Every year, we are given the chance to speak up on referendums or other local issues, and every two to four years, we are given larger decisions to make. In our current society, voting is treated like the twisting of the key in a toy car, setting it down and watching go. What I suggest we voters do instead, is make sure the car is remote controlled, and help it along. This should especially be true in cases of sending elected officials to our State and Federal Capitals.

Voters may not understand the great responsibility that befalls them once the voting is through. In the midst of our busy, distracting, stressful lives, we endow great trust and power in those who we feel are more informed than we are. We trust them to do the right thing. We may feel they have a law degree that puts them above us, or a family history in politics that gives them an advantage, or a breezy, confident manner that we could never imagine having. In the end, though, they are people who are accountable to us, and it is our job to not let them forget that.

It's easy to charge regular citizens with the responsibility of keeping politicians honest, but the truth is, those politicians have greater reach and resources to sustain the flow of Corporate money that keeps them in office. Politicians actively work in our interests on the campaign trail, but once they're in office, that constituent loyalty can be sidetracked by party loyalty or by Corporate corruption in the form of the Lobby.

At our jobs, our bosses scrutinize our activities, but we are tasked with the responsibility to do the same to politicians we send to office. They are our paid representatives. That said, keeping tabs on the rich and powerful is not easy. They can reach out to us with little or no effort, but the truth is, they often make themselves scarce. They are, after all, a kind of royalty.

This takes me back to the John Adams miniseries, and how the colonies continually petitioned the King with grievances over taxation and representation. The king had no duty to respond right away, or respond at all, but colonists continued to petition in hopes for a reply. When the reply came, it was belittling and dismissive. Imagine how the colonists must have felt. That sense of helplessness and frustration and - yes, a rebellious streak - has overcome a great deal of the citizenry today. Some of it is over taxation. Some of it is over the gulf between rich and poor. The majority of our country, at the end of the day, feels frustration at exactly the same things. The only difference is, of course, in how they're having the nature of the problem interpreted to them. Less Government, more Government, leaner Government, no foreign intervention, more foreign aid... which is it? Which will it be? Which will ensure our best 'Happiness?'

Some of the Aristocracy in our country makes itself available to us in addressing these issues, but as with any plutocracy, most of them have the luxury of tuning out grievances they don't want to hear. Many of them feel, in a perverse way, that the only way they can help their constituents is to keep their jobs, but the only way they can keep their jobs is to sometimes work against the direct interests of those constituents. This 'harm them to help them' philosophy is a common paradox in all representative societies.

In our modern age, particularly with the pretension that has settled into the media, we're continually encouraged to throw aside rebellious impulses. Prudence and inaction are often associated with political wisdom and sobriety. Political activism that makes noise has been associated with naivete and lunacy. It doesn't help that many ardent, vocal political activists display a noise and emotion that is no longer associated with representative Government in this country. Protest isn't always about being loud and violent, but the founders of this country found it necessary to be both, after they felt their prudent measures lost their potency. Well, our prudent measures, our our modern age, seem to have lost their potency. There are solutions, but they're decidedly imperfect, much like the Government itself.

The White House runs a site called We the People. Government run-websites like this can act as an uncensored public forum for grievance and assembly. In theory, they are the very essence of what this country is all about.  If we saw more of this technology driven activism put forth by Representative Governments, either at the local or Federal level, people might feel more directly connected with their Elected Officials rather than this ivory tower nonsense. If technology were used to circumvent bureaucracy rather than put in clunky service of bureaucracy, we might be getting somewhere.

Such cafeteria style 'message board' activism is not without its caveats, however. It is the sign of the times. There is an odd passivity to it all, one fostered by the sense that we are a people to be catered to and told what to think. At the end of the day, direct phone calls, emails and letters to our local representatives in Congress are still the way to petition a grievance. Even letters to the President are known to get answered from time to time. While it's helpful to use petition boards like We the People to get a bead on the issues of the day, it's hard to ignore the stark reality that for the White House, it may be nothing more than a public polling device disguised as a public interest operation.

There should be one stark difference between citizens and the Elected Officials they choose to represent them, but that difference should not be related to wealth, or class, or special interest. Instead, the Officials we choose should best us in one primary way: their ability to articulate our concerns concisely, forcefully and without bias. Activism is now looked on as the last, shrill, shrieking vestige of the desperate underrepresented masses, but there's no reasons that Public Activism cannot be re-defined to once again mean something that the right elected Politicians can perform in the service of their duty. John Adams and his colleagues in the first Congress were looked at the same way in their inception, and look where that got them.


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