Indulging Our Laziness
In a responsible republic, citizens must be participatory in choosing and carefully watching their chosen leaders. Without the fear of retaliation from the governed, those leaders feel emboldened to abuse the public trust. When citizens let their guard down and a holder of elective office abuses the power given them, we should rightfully run them out of office. Instead, we throw up our hands, yell that the system is beyond repair, and abdicate our responsibility for fixing things to someone else. All too often, that someone else has little reservation about the abuses that drove others to inaction. Thus the vicious cycle continues, constantly winnowing down the participants in our electoral process to a smaller and smaller minority. The current push to create an ethics commission is just an indulgence of that collective laziness.
In an ideal world, abuses of power would see retaliation by voters in elections that either humble or remove the offending party. In practice, only a tenth of us regularly participate in municipal elections and barely over half will turn out during a presidential election year. That lack of participation cedes power to those who bother to show up, regularly the most partisan participants. In our Republican-heavy state where many Democrats and independents do not vote because they count on being drowned out, it allows legislators to get away with all kinds of questionable behavior. For instance, Sen. Howard Stephenson is both a sitting state senator and a well-paid lobbyists. Many legislators are public employees, drawing a check from both the executive and legislative branches while lobbying for themselves. How is it that these situations are allowed to exist? The sad and very uncomfortable truth is that those who vote are okay with it and those who don’t vote don’t matter.
So what does it take to stir people to action? Normally it would be up to the local media and good investigative journalism to get people mad enough to do something. I would argue that they are failing us. The rapid consolidation of media ownership coupled with extreme cost-cutting and less local news sources has left reporters stretched thin, barely able to cover the local top stories. Many stories go unreported or uninvestigated despite their newsworthiness. Think about this: when was the last time you read an article about your local city council meeting? Those very meetings can often make or break the livability of your city, yet you have to attend in person to know what happened or try and piece together the contents of the meeting from vague minutes. So can bloggers fill the information gap? Many of us report on things not covered by the newsmedia and have even broken stories first. That said, we’re not trained journalists and often don’t follow those same methods. While blogs have extended their reach substantively and have become more mainstream, they hardly have the reach that newspapers, television, or radio do and are rarely subject to fact-checking. Even when fact-checking occurs, it’s often by someone on the opposing side which leaves you wondering whom to believe.
This brings us back around to the proposed ethics legislation. I don’t find any of the highlighted ethical rules to be particularly odious (though they definitely put the effort into the wrong end of the problem), but I do find it objectionable that we would abdicate our responsibility to act as a check against the government to an unelected committee. I would go so far as to say it is un-American, but with how we delegate responsibility to other parties on a regular basis (expecting teachers to raise our kids is at the top of that list), it is almost distinctly American. It is, however, entirely wrong.
Still, if the voters decide they’d rather have someone else make those tough calls for them so that they can get back to watching the last season of Lost on their TiVo, that is their prerogative. Those of us who have been responsible should feel appropriate shame that we didn’t rally our neighbors to take action on their own and let it come to this. The best-case scenario is that bonking a few heads will encourage greater civic participation via reduced cynicism.
Next up: some proposed adjustments to the ethics initiative to check its power and gauge its effectiveness.