In the 18th and 19th Century, Americans were passionate about politics. Their belief in self government had a different meaning in those days, instead of some libertarian notion of less government it was a time in our history when if you were a citizen or a citizen in waiting you participated in your own governance to a greater degree. The hands on approach came partially out of necessity as the nation grew and moved westward. There was constant movement, people were in motion on our rivers and across the prairie. With the movement came needs that constantly needed to be met. Internal Improvements were an issue that was a hot topic of discussion as was the issue of tariffs.
Alexis de Tocqueville took note when he wrote in the year that Lincoln was first elected to the Illinois state legislature the following: “Scarcely have you descended on the soil of America, when you find yourself in the midst of a sort of tumult; a confused clamor is raised on all side; a thousand voices comes to your ear at the same time, each of them expressing some social needs. Around you everything moves: here, the people of one neighborhood have gathered to learn if a church ought to be built; there, they are working on the choice of a representative; farther on, the deputies of a district are going to town in all haste in order to decide about some local improvements; in another place; the farmers of a village abandon their furrows to go discuss the plan of a road or a school.”
He went on further,” Citizens assemble with the sole goal of declaring that they disapprove of the course of government.” De Tocqueville further observed that they believed that “To meddle in the government of society and to speak about it is the greatest business and, so to speak, the only pleasure that an American knows…..An American does not know how to converse, but he discusses; he does not discourse, but he holds forth. He always speaks to you as to an assembly.”
Things in some ways have not changed much since then in that outside of sports and the weather, politics is still a hot topic of discussion. The country isn’t moving as much. We finished moving from mountain range to the next valley. The next frontiers are space, the depths of the ocean and our own mind. But that does not mean that the roads and infrastructure do not still need fixing nor does it mean that needs do not need to be met now, not later.
In general we seem less on the move and with the lessening of the frontier spirit our citizen participation has diminished, both in the daily discussion of a community’s needs and it is woefully lacking when it comes to our voting. Citizens of the 19th Century voted at an almost 80% rate. We are lucky to get half of those registered to vote. Local elections have a worse record, the important positions of city council and school board are lucky to find a town in California to vote at a 20% rate of the registered voter population.
You would think that with the information revolution and with more gadgets doing our work, our time would be better spent on working on the betterment of our individual communities.
Politics is still like sports a common topic of conversation. We all like to complain about politics, just like we like to complain about a local team if it is not winning. The general feeling that you often heard expressed is that they are all crooked or what’s the point in voting. Often it is the other congressperson who is the crooked one, instead of our own. We keep electing the same people time after time. We complain about politicians but rarely do we do something about it. Yet in poll after poll the natives are restless, an overwhelming majority of citizens are not happy about the direction of the country. Each of us, each citizen has it within our power to change things by getting involved. We don’t have to wait for some magic bullet like term limits to save us from ourselves. Jefferson was right, we get the government we deserve. We have the solution in our hands, vote. Pay attention to who the candidates are and to what the candidates claim they will do to fix problems. Don’t forget to ask questions and seek out the candidate or the elected who has an impact on your life. Democracy is not a spectator sport, if you expect results it is a contact sport. Democracy is not for the feint of heart. PARTICIPATE! Democracy may be a messy process but it is still the best thing we have going. You! Yes, that’s right, you! You have your own fate in your own hands, get involved.