We The People

Stephanie Vance
©2003 All Rights Reserved

My husband and I were touring through California's wine country a few years ago and stayed at a number of bed and breakfasts where we had the opportunity to talk with fellow travelers over breakfast. Our conversations inevitably turned to where we were from and what we did for a living. At the time, I was working for a member of the United States Congress. Whenever I announced what I did for a living, a hush would fall over the room. Some people would turn away. Others would look at me as if I were some sort of freak. Some would even try to get into an argument with me about whether government was doing anything positive for the country. After a while, I stopped telling people where I worked -- I wanted to enjoy my vacation!

I never forgot, though, the attitudes of the people we encountered. For a long time, I wondered why people feel that their government has little or nothing to do with their daily lives -- and why they'd like to keep it that way.

According to surveys done by the Council for Excellence in Government, many Americans feel disconnected from their government. 51% of Americans feel that government does little or nothing for them, 77% have only “some” or “very little” confidence in the Federal Government, and only 8% believe the government has had a large number of successes – and this comes from people who grew up during the Space Race, Great Society programs, and the passage of numerous environmental laws to clean up our air, water, and earth.

But why do people feel this way? I think part of the problem is the “myths” about government and politicians that we’ve all grown up with – myths that need to be dispelled. For example, is it true that “Politicians won’t listen to an average citizen”? or is part of the problem that people do not understand, or, at the worst, have abdicated their power to affect change? Only 36% of U.S. citizens turned out in the November 1998 elections, compared to 80% of Europeans in similar elections. And beyond voting -- how many people have actually taken the time to write a thoughtful, personal letter to their representative?

Or, is it true that, “Politicians just like to sit around and argue with each other – they’re completely ineffective,” or is part of the problem that the system was designed to be slow moving and deliberate – that, in a sense, it is reflective of the varying views and interests of the people? The Federalist Papers, a set of arguments that were published during the effort to ratify the Constitution, makes it clear that the authors sought to establish a government that balanced energy with deliberation. If you think about it, at least 271 people ( the House plus the Senate plus the President) have to agree to the exact language of legislation before it can become law. If you wanted to set up an organization that would move quickly without argument, you wouldn’t set it up like this.

With this balance comes an awesome responsibility for American citizens. As citizens of the greatest democracy on Earth, we have a responsibility to participate in our governance. If you doubt your power, consider how our Constitution, the document that lays the groundwork for our system of governance, treats citizen participation. It starts “We the People of the United States…” Citizen activists founded our country.

Think about "We the People" -- there is hope, and it involves you. Stephanie Vance, the Advocacy Guru, is author of Government by the People: How to Communicate with Congress and a former Capitol Hill veteran. She lives and works in Washington, DC, offering workshops and advice on effective advocacy.

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