“I hate politics and want no part of it…” “All politicians are crooked…” “I don’t vote because it doesn’t matter who we elect…” “Never trust a politician…” “I don’t vote because I don’t think it makes any difference…” “They all lie. I am done with them. I am opting out.”
My response to those who want to opt out is, “Yes, there are some dishonest politicians, people who feather their nest at our expense. Yes, there are elected officials who ignore us after they are elected. Yes, there are those who tell lies and try to drag us into an alternative universe.” But, the percentage of those who do so are not any greater in government than in other professions.
Politicians work in a public arena. They have journalists watching every move and listening to every word. When an elected or appointed government official slips into slime it is on the front page of the morning newspaper. Many of those who read about a politician’s indiscretion often tend to generalize the bad behavior and condemn them all. When a business person makes a similar misstep, the entire profession is usually not besmirched.
I can say unequivocally that the vast majority of public employees and elected officials I worked with during my career were honest, diligent and hard working. While I sometimes clashed with my elected overseers, a majority of the time we were able to find common ground and move forward.
My Conclusions Are Being Challenged
Now, however, the conclusions I draw from my experiences are being challenged by the ugly state of politics in American today––challenged, but not yet changed. Our government today is polarized by ideological agendas. This isn’t new; it has been building for several decades. I think back to something former U.S. Senator Barry Goldwater said to a small group of us prior to a joint press conference: Republicans in Arizona, he said, “don’t just want to win, they want to kill the enemy. And make no mistake: You and I are among the enemies.”
These words were spoken in 1992 when some in his party were trying to take the Goldwater name off of their state headquarters building. None of us in the room could have imagined how prescient these remarks would turn out to be. The vicious vitriol coming from many of today’s elected leaders dominates too much of American politics. Too many elected leaders cower in fear before the image of a failed autocrat. I have never witnessed such a fierce commitment to blocking even the discussion of the critical issues facing our nation. I’ve never seen our public life as ill-functioning as it is today.
But I do not put all of the blame on the Republican and Democratic members of Congress. Of course, I think many of them are jerks. Of course, I see many of them as demagogues rather than stateswomen and men. But I do not blame them for the governing failures of our day. I blame us. The representatives and senators did not appoint themselves. We elected them. And if thoughtful people continue to opt out of political life, the demagogues will bring the nation down.
Turning public life over to those on the radical ideological fringe kindled the insurrectionist crisis of January 6. A single-minded desire to see the opposition fail is stymimg our progress and polarizing the citizenry. America is in a crisis state and the future our grandchildren will inherit from us is in dire danger of collapse.
The way we get beyond this is to participate…participate not to see who can shout the loudest or do the best job of decimating the other side… but participate in how our government is formed and how it carries out its duties. Cajole, confront and even confound the leaders you put in office. But, when they do something right, support them with the same vigor and enthusiasm with which you oppose them when they go against your views.
Participating in governing as a citizen is often hard and usually unpaid work. But it is necessary. The long-term health of a democracy depends almost entirely on us––– on our level of commitment to making it the best it can be, on our insistence to ensuring that those we elect talk and act from facts rather than poll-tested slogans.
It is much easier to judge and gripe and walk away in disgust than it is to roll up our sleeves and go to work. But, if only the zealots of the right and left participate, the polarization of America will get worse and democracy will not survive a forever war of the extremes.
Bill Jamieson’s career has included leadership positions in business, government, and education. He was also an ordained deacon in the Episcopal Church and his ministry centered around advocacy for low-income families and children.