On a regular basis, I can count on someone saying to me, “Why do you get involved in that politic stuff? Does it really make any difference? Does it matter? You know, all politicians are crooks and the whole the political world is dirty. I can’t imagine why you’d get involved with it.”
The core idea for many of these people is the last one – the whole political world is dirty and you shouldn’t get involved with it and maybe if you’re involved, you’re dirty too. The sludge of corruption from Bush and the Republicans since 2001 only serves to reinforce the idea. The partisan witch hunt over Bill Clinton’s blow job was part the problem too – it created the impression that even a basically good man like Bill Clinton must be dirty to get ahead in politics. Whitewater – which after almost a decade turned up NO wrongdoing by anyone affiliated with the Clintons added to the overall impression of politics as a dirty business. Dishonesty, corruption, graft are all assumed to be part and parcel of the political game.
The historic levels of corrutpion achieved in US politics in the last 7 years is responded to with a world-weary shrug and people go about their business. After all, they tell themselves, it is the nature of the beast and of course politicians expect you to pay to play and Tom Delay’s mistake was getting caught. There’s no passion to reform the system because people are convinced reform is pointless – politics itself corrupts and is corrupt. The system is flawed and there’s no reason to get involved – good, average people will only be corrupted by exposure. So good, average decent people keep their distance.
Which makes it easier for the corrupt and dishonest to operate without fear of being voted out of office.
Which makes it easier for good people to get tired and to stay away from the system. It becomes a feedback loop. The reformist zeal of previous generations of Americans hasn’t died, but it needs rekindled, reignited into a fire to demand honest politics.
I deplore the tactics of so many politicians – from George W. Bush’s brutal savaging of John McCain in 2000 to Hilary Clinton’s careful triangulation and double speak to the average politico on the street’s mudslinging a la Dave Buhler – but ultimately, most of the pols I’ve met are basically decent, more or less honest people who are trying to do what they think is right. They just don’t feel passionate about remaking politics into a more transparent and democratic system because they don’t know where to start. They know the influence of money is negative and they want to reduce it, they want more average citizens involved. They just don’t know how to make it happen and they don’t see a passion for it in the citizens they talk to.
State legislators in Utah say that 10 phone calls from constituents on a single issue is a veritable flood on that issue. 20 emails on a single issue is almost unheard of. In a sick way, the influence of groups like PCE are great because they use their massive mountains of out of state and Overstock.com dollars to get people emailing our legislators. I honestly think our legislators were shocked when they found out a majority of Utahns oppose vouchers. They weren’t hearing that during the session or in last year’s election. The influence of money is playing out negatively. But they also have to pay for re-election campaigns and they aren’t getting any cheaper.
The system – and it is a system – creates disincentives for the kinds of reforms that would really make a difference. Conversely, those who advocate for such reforms don’t feel they have the backing of the voters, even though they do.
The attitude that all politics is dirty creates a different feedback loop. Voters tell themselves politics is dirty and politicians are dirty. So they stay away. They tell themselves they have no influence, no power, no ability to be part of changing the system. When things go wrong, they tune out because they expect corruption, deceit, graft and failure. People get further and further away from their government – they stop voting, they stop knowing the name of their member of Congress, state legislature, city government. When elected leaders utterly and completely fail as impressively as George W. Bush, the citizens don’t get angry because, well, it’s a dirty business and they don’t want to get involved.
A couple years ago, I was talking about my experiences at the State legislature when friends of the family said, in horror, “Why would you get involved in such a dirty, dishonest business with such a bunch of dirty, dishonest people?” I told them, “If good people don’t get involved, then it will be a dirty, dishonest business. I’m an honest person and I want the system to be honest. And I’ll be up there letting our legislators know I’m watching.”
Getting involved does make a difference. I was at the bill signing ceremony for Utah’s hate crimes law – Pete Suazo was fighting for Hate Crimes Legislation the first year I was advocating for it. Then David Litvack. I was furious the year one Republican said it was BOHICA legislation – Bend Over Here It Comes Again (I’m sure he didn’t mean the double entendre). But that guy is gone and the bill was signed and I was in the room for it. At the table with legislators and activists and the Governor. We never stopped fighting for what was right.
I think the reason so many volunteers have been out walking for Ralph Becker, so many people have given up their friday nights to help out at campaign HQ and have given money and energy is because they see in Ralph Becker a man of incredible integrity. He’s not just honest, he cares about the system working the way it should – involving voters, engaging people. He’s not boring – no, he’s exciting because he cares like we do. The system should be honest and it should be ethical and it should work for all the people.
I’m helping him because he’s the kind of elected leader I want to see in my community.
At the end of the day, if I can help get more decent, honest, hard working people with integrity elected and get them listened to in the halls of power, every second I’ve spent will be worth it. And it does make a difference. For the people this year who have dental and vision because of the Medicaid I helped fight for, the it’s worth it.
And every decent, honest person who gets involved is one more person who is saying, “No more. No more corruption. No more pay to play. No more ethical problems. No more selling the government to the highest bidder.”
I love my country and I love it enough to fight for it be better – to live up to the promise it holds, not give it up to the people who shrug and say, “That’s how the game is played.”