Sunday, November 27, 2011

What do you know?

By Bill Kraus

The Know Nothing movement of the mid-nineteenth century was a semi-secret political organization (an oxymoron?) which was dedicated to protecting the country from a takeover by German and Irish Catholic immigrants. The name resulted from their members’ keeping their association secret. When asked about the movement they, not unlike TV’s Sergeant Schultz, replied “I know nothing.”

The 21st century version of know nothingness is not a movement but a condition. It describes the citizens who have outsourced, abandoned, and ignored politics and politicians.

The result of this behavior has two deleterious effects. The first is the obvious one of letting the righteous righties who want governments to do nothing and the loony lefties who want them to do everything rise in influence. These are the “bases” to which the candidates must play to get nominated and elected. They used to be marginalized by the dominant moderate middle of both persuasions. No longer.

An even more insidious side effect is true know nothingness. People who don’t participate, even slightly, in electing our representatives who don’t know of or about the public sector lose more than influence.

They also lose perspective and a mild kind of wisdom. If they vote, they pretty much vote in the dark and support and reject ideas and people off a no-knowledge base.

The first time I realized something was awry here was when I got a call from a politically alert friend who was offended by his representative’s non-stop attacks on higher education in general and on the University of Wisconsin in particular. “What can I do about this?” he asked. “You can run an opposing candidate in the primary,” I replied. “I don’t know how to do that,” he said.

He was alert but unequipped. Not good.

Somewhat later I chatted with other very worldly, very well informed (I thought) citizens in other parts of the state. One of them had no idea who represented him in the state Senate or the state Assembly. Don’t laugh. Ask this question of some of your acquaintances sometime.

The other didn’t know he had been redistricted and was no longer represented in the Congress by someone who he had voted for for years.

If they don’t know this, what do they know?

Do they know what their government can and can’t, should and shouldn’t do?

What are they looking for or at when they make a voting decision, if, indeed, they bother to vote at all?

Does this kind of know nothingness make them foils for the professionals who do know something and who categorize them by wedges and appeal to them on one or two hot button issues--guns, marriage rights, fear of crime--to get their vote for a candidate who may or may not be a worthy representative on the full range of public sector responsibilities?

I have on my wall a picture that was taken behind the high school in Stevens Point on a cold, fall Saturday in late October in the 1960s. The 40 or 50 people pictured had gathered to pick up campaign literature which they would deliver throughout the city urging their neighbors to consider the Republican candidates described in the literature. If you are looking for a daunting political task, this venture in futility will fill the bill.

The members of this group included the chairman of a large insurance company, the president of a bank, the manager of a paper mill, a county judge, a physician, a dentist, retailers, housewives, teenagers, clerks, executives, union members, teachers. Everybody.

This may have been the only political act in which many of them participated. But they read the literature. They knew why they were there. They knew the candidates. They knew what the candidates were for and against. The knew something. They were not know nothings. Nor were they single-issue zealots.

Until and unless they come back, our representative form of government will be polarized, partisanized, endangered. Sending money, delegating and outsourcing to others is not enough. Scorning politics and politicians is not helpful. Nor is whining.

We all need to have a hand in and on the public sector. The system depends on us.

Follow Bill Kraus on:
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Bill Kraus is the Co-Chair of Common Cause in Wisconsin's State Governing Board

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