Recent headlines highlight what conflicting attitudes we Americans tend to hold about government. The still-unfolding tragedy in Oso, the debates over school and transportation funding, and the Supreme Court ruling on campaign contributions all underscore just what a messy process democracy is.
We expect a lot from our government – protection from bad actors and natural disasters, high quality education and infrastructure, far-sighted leadership that still represents us. But we also want to be able to do as we please and pay as little as possible in taxes.
Mixed in with news accounts of individual heroism and community solidarity from the Oso landslide are questions of whether public officials could have prevented loss of life. Should the state have banned logging on that hilltop – and on every unstable slope in Washington? Should Snohomish County have prohibited building homes in the slide zone – and on other private property at risk of landslide or flood? Should we invest in a monitor and alert system – and who should pay?
Oso and Darrington aren’t just scenic retreats. They’re working-class communities where logging is still an important part of the economic base. And the demand for lumber is driven by us city folk, even while many of us condemn clear-cutting and the ugly scars it leaves on our views.
We elect our city and county council members, state legislators and governor, Congress members and president. They pass the laws, with industry lobbyists, environmentalists, union reps, policy experts, and individual constituents arguing conflicting points of view. Then those oft-reviled government bureaucrats – or public servants – try to enforce usually imperfect laws with limited resources.
And the next expensive election campaign is always just around the corner. A well-financed opponent can outshout a true people’s representative, and easily twist a vote for the most thoughtfully-crafted legislation in a way that plays on voters’ fears.
A vote intended to protect lives and the environment is portrayed by opponents as a job-killing attack on property rights. A vote to ensure long-term funding for quality education, or modernized transportation infrastructure, is framed as greedy politicians taking more money out of your pocket. A vote requiring corporate shareholders and wealthy individuals to pay their fair share for public services is pronounced class warfare.
All the special-interest money in politics, and the fact that the Supreme Court has just allowed the wealthiest 600 or so Americans to make even larger campaign contributions, wouldn’t be so bad if voters had the leisure and inclination to be well-informed about the issues and candidates. But even professional policy wonks understand the ins and outs of only a handful of issues. Most people are too caught up with their kids’ activities, their parents’ declining health, and trying to pay the bills to have much energy for political engagement.
Therefore, public debate usually happens in sound bites. That enables those with the most money to have the most freedom to speak. Consensus based on true understanding of different perspectives rarely emerges.
Our government isn’t perfect, but under the circumstances functions remarkably well. Our schools educate most kids, our food and water is generally safe, our cities don’t crumble to rubble in earthquakes, firefighters and police show up and display heroism.
The only way to make government better is for more of us to be engaged, to learn about the issues, to share our views with candidates, to hold elected officials accountable for representing us and the common good, to be willing to pay our fair share of taxes to assure opportunity for the next generation. In the end, democracy is an on-going process that requires us all to participate.
Marilyn Watkins is policy director of the Economic Opportunity Institute, a nonpartisan policy center focused on building and economy that works for everyone.