Designing America: Why Bother?
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Over Thanksgiving dinner a guest challenged a political opinion I'd offered. She said, "Why bother having opinions, you can't change anything about this country?"
"Do you vote," I asked.
"Of course not, it's not worth the trouble."
This lady, a naturalized citizen, enjoys a successful business career in which she takes advantage of opportunities offered in the United States, opportunities thousands gave their lives to win and protect. However, like so many, she feels powerless to influence the way we are governed.
"Some of us do a lot more than vote," I said. "I contribute to a political party and to different special causes, and when there is a demonstration out there on the street I often go and carry a sign. And you've seen the political bumper stickers on my truck. I always let my opinions show. It stirs up discussion."
Her answer, "Politics, money and religion are controversial and should be avoided in polite conversation."
She raised the idea that it is best to avoid arguments at all costs lest you hurt someone's feelings. I told her that I learn very little from people who agree with me, that debate at all levels is often the best teacher and the best way to explore new ideas. Always the dinner-table bore I said, "What in our lives is more important to talk about than politics, money and religion?"
Then I really angered her with, "Saying that you have no power, that your vote doesn't count, is just a way of avoiding the work involved in improving America, a project that is never finished."
Inevitably, the talk turned to opinions—yes, opinions—on fashion, movies and sports. The debates raged on through desert and clean-up with little regard for the feelings of anyone as the arguments heated up.
The truth is that most Americans find politics boring and are poorly informed. People often complain bitterly about this or that problem and blame politicians or government in general for all kinds of things that go wrong in life. Yet they feel helpless to effect changes. Our United States Constitution is slowly dying of old age, but this grand historical document is probably the most important secular writing in our lives because it is the basic design for the government under which we live. In spite of its importance, it is one of the least read or studied documents in American life. Much has changed in the two centuries since it was written. The Constitution today does not cover many of the problems that have grown up over time. Resolving problems caused by time and by our changing culture grows increasingly controversial, and yet if you suggest any change in the Constitution it's like suggesting a revision of the Bible. People may accuse you of thinking like a traitor, communist or revolutionary.
At some point in their lives, millions of Americans, me included, swore to uphold and defend the Constitution. None have been sworn to improve it. Unfortunately, improving the design of our government is a difficult and unlikely outcome, but the consequences of not doing so could be grave.
Even if the average citizen did study the Constitution and saw changes that needed to be made, the chances of seeing even the smallest change take place during a lifetime are almost zero. For example, discussions about passing an equal rights amendment, an amendment that would guarantee women equal rights to men under the law, have been going on for over eighty years, and the amendment is still stalled in controversy.
In this series of articles I will try to outline a gradual, logical and effective way to continue the revolution begun in 1776. The United States is not a finished product, it never will be. Although designing our government will never be finished, we must make a start no matter how small that start may be. As they say, however, all politics are local, so we might well make a beginning at a very local level by building habits of involvement here and now, wherever we live today. If we do attempt to improve the design of government at our local levels we will learn how government works and be encouraged to take on larger and more ambitions tasks.
Before I try to design ways to re-design the federal government prescribed by our Constitution I want to look at how and why citizens can become involved in government at the neighborhood level.
Let's grant that all politics are local. In terms of taking control of the system and changing it, I believe the essence of this slogan is involvement, and the smaller and more local the problems on which you work the greater the odds you have of making a difference, of seeing a change actually happen.
All politics are local means that a very few people can, by organized action, effect important changes in a community. For example, the powers that reign in the little town where I live have a kiosk on which citizens can post announcements of all sorts. It is a wonderful example of free speech, or at least it was until a liberal political group posted a notice on the town kiosk about a coming meeting. The commissionaires, mostly conservative businessmen, soon voted to ban political material from the town kiosk. The liberal group protested but at first was not allowed to speak at the meetings of commissionaires. Retreating even further, the illustrious commissionaires voted to ban posting by almost all local groups and organizations leaving the once beloved kiosk empty of anything but official county announcements. Bus schedules, tide tables and legal announcements just did not arouse deep public interest, and so the town was robbed of something that had marked its character for years.
The small group of would-be posters did not give up and was finally permitted to speak at a town meeting. Now word comes that the authorities, suffering severe local criticism for efforts to restrict freedom of speech, have yielded and will permit the traditional fascinating gaggle of postings. A small and persistent group, on their own time and with no pay, was able to make a change and to right a wrong. It didn't take many people to bring the issue to official attention and to a favorable vote. It must be said that local newspapers picked up the ongoing story proving that a free press is one of the most essential parts of free speech.
In the late 1700s a group of only a few dozen determined men got together in Philadelphia and founded a nation. Yes, it took an army and years of fighting to establish the nation they foresaw, but it was their ideas that moved the army and formed our government.
Much as we might like to bring about large changes in large issues, what we can more easily do is get involved in smaller, local problems and so work from the bottom up rather than from the top down. I recall the 1960s and 70s when people gradually realized that we would never win in Viet Nam. I recall how the radical protesters became a majority opinion and brought a long, bloody war to an end. Whether or not you agree with how we ended that war, you have to admit that public pressure, slow to organize and often inefficient, can make a big difference.
Must we wait for extreme conditions of poverty, repression and war before we begin to improve the design of government? That is the historical pattern. Successful problem solving usually depends on a plan. We must design a plan that has a chance of working before we can plan the design of government. While we practice on local issues we can prepare the way for bigger things.Although I have opinions, it will not be my task to suggest what changes may be needed in the Constitution of the Unites States. That is properly the job of the electorate or their elected representatives. My goal is merely to suggest a plan by which a continuing renewal of constitutional government can be undertaken. Even if we try a plan and it fails, the effort might succeed in arousing public interest.