Monday, March 16, 2015

Unfinished Business 5: Getting Involved

By Bill Kraus

One of the ways I test to see if our democracy is in working order is to ask young people where they live and who represents them in the state legislature. They all know where they live. Almost all of them have no idea who represents them in the state legislature. This probably means they don’t vote, but I don’t ask that too intrusive question.

Politics and government is not a part of their lives. Or it is, at best, one of those casual parts like going to movies, watching TV, playing games that are optional and vary with each person’s interests.

What we have become is a nation of political consumers, spectators. We are in the bleachers. Politics is the business of professionals who merchandise the candidate products to us from their place in the arena.

It’s a long way from Tammany Hall, baby, where politics was people.

The good news is that people are still interested in politics and politicians. Presentations to groups by those of us who are on the pied piper circuit are lively. Lots of questions. Lots of ideas. But they end with a whimper not a bang, because someone always asks how to get into the arena.

There are three ports of entry. The first is to become a candidate. Limited to the truly ambitious. The broader option in that port is to attach to a candidate or a candidate’s organization or put together an organization for a candidate. That’s how I got sucked in. The third is to join an organization that has a cause that’s appealing. This can range from the blands, like the reform organizations who focus on keeping the system working, to the rabids like the National Rifle Association who think their thing is the whole thing.

None of these ports are big enough to accommodate large numbers of people or are broad enough to attract those democracy really needs: the generalists who want a government that works in a country they like.

The political parties once provided a welcoming big-tent port of entry for large numbers of people who went from membership to leadership at many levels. The parties are still there, but the tent has gatekeepers and litmus tests now that repel or reject most of us. Only the rabids remain in that shrunken version of the arena.

The faint hope that the parties could be restored to power rests with the Democrats. They are being out organized (organization was, is, always will be the parties main purpose and weapon) by the Republicans, and are routinely getting their clock cleaned in non-presidential years when they have not mobilized to get their sympathizers out to vote.

The parties would do this. But the parties would have to have the PAC money (there’s a way to get this), would have to take the power to slate and fund back from the legislative leaders and the professionals, would have to vote in moderate party leaders who had the time, energy, and durability to marginalize the extremists and interests who have moved from sideshow to center stage in that arena.

Not likely.

Maybe the route into the arena is as simple as answering the question posed 500 words ago, finding out who does represent you, offering to help him or her or his or her opponent if he or she is not your cup of tea.

Maybe you can think of a better way. But do it. Take the arena back from the professionals. Politics matter. Elections count.

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