Earlier this week, the New York Times featured an article seemingly critical of the political process (and its participants, or lack thereof) that gave our country its current Republican and Democratic nominees. What does it say about our political system that the leader of the free world can be chosen based on a 9% voter turnout in the primaries? The fact is, the first three words of the United States Constitution are so often quoted and yet so often disregarded. Those first three words need to come alive in the purest meaning. "We the people" need to start participating actively in every aspect of American society and culture, particularly in going beyond the scope of politics.
To begin, I should highlight a few issues in our current democratic process. Not only do we have an embarrassingly low voter turnout in both the primaries and in the general election, but we also have an incredibly uninformed public.
The United States is home to too many uninformed voters. Mixing ignorance and democracy is a dangerous idea. In 2011, 47 percent of Americans couldn't name a single GOP candidate for president. Even while Congress's approval rating dwindles, over 50% of American voters can't even correctly name both of their US senators, according to a 2000 Social Capital Community Benchmark Survey. Six years ago, one survey found that two-thirds of Americans can't name a single US Supreme Court Justice. In 2011, Newsweek gave 1,000 Americans the US Citizenship Test and 38% of participants failed. Nearly one-third couldn't even name the vice president! Staying informed on policy and current events is essential to "voting well." See the video below.
Here's something too few voters think about, and this stretches across the entire political spectrum: responsibility and power given to the government is inherently responsibility and power taken away from the people. The government is not made up of the people, the country is. The government will always use any amount of power that is surrendered to it, no matter how little or seemingly innocent. In an effort to "protect people from making poor decisions," government passes laws. But no one questions whether or not the government should be protecting the public from making mistakes. Whether it be by trying to get people to stop smoking via taxes and ad campaigns, suppressing voter turnout through felon disenfranchisement or ID laws, preventing marriage equality, suppressing free speech in order to control people, controlling what Americans eat in order to reduce obesity and so on, these laws are shrouded in "well-meaning" intentions that actually remove personal responsibility from the public. You can (and should) follow this Twitter account to learn more about some of the ridiculous crimes in this country (@CrimeADay). For example, here's a recent tweet.
In 1982, the Department of Justice attempted to count the number of federal crimes in existence. According to the Wall Street Journal, no one has attempted anything that extensive before (or since). And the number of laws, as well as prisoners, have significantly increased since then. As of earlier this year, the United States continues to lead the world in incarcerated citizens per capita, second only to Seychelles (which has less than a population of 100,000 and I can guarantee you've never even heard of it).
Roman historian Tacitus recognized an important fact about Rome's existence: it was doomed. He expresses this in one of his most famous works, "The Annals of Imperial Rome." Tacitus writes critically of the corruption of Tiberius and fears for the future of his society while longing for its past glory. There are many parallels between American society and Ancient Roman society, including wealth and opulence, political corruption, world dominance and spiritual decline. America, it appears, may be heading in the same direction. Those who ignore history are bound to repeat it, and it's safe to say that too many Americans ignore everything that doesn't immediately and adequately stimulate them.
So how do we fix this? Obviously, it isn't with governmental regulation. The government proves all too frequently how incapable it is of regulating itself. There is a need for the public to become more involved and invested in improving society. It is so incredibly difficult not to get cynical at the ignorance of mainstream America. Take Bill Maher, for example. He's gotten a lot of flack over the years for calling out America's stupidity.
While arguably, and perhaps statistically, he is right when he says Americans are stupid, that doesn't fix anything. What has Bill Maher done to fix it? Sure, he conducts a show every week that references/reports on current events and politics. I do not want to undersell that. However, many people are turned off by his arrogance, attitude and crudeness. Does he make an effort to reach out to those people who don't watch his show? I can't say for sure one way or the other, but it's hard to believe that he'd make the time for something that he obviously sees no hope in doing. Maybe the mass majority of Americans are uninformed and ignorant, but continually chastising them for that is not going to encourage people to get informed.
"We the people" might be able to change things, though. Talk to your neighbors. Talk to your friends. Skip the conversation about what was on sale at the grocery store or what happened on last night's "The Voice" and instead, choose to talk about a pressing issue in society. This isn't meant to change things overnight. But every conversation is the slightest nudge back from the brink. Stay informed and use a variety of different media outlets to do it. Don't just watch a news network you agree with; rather, challenge yourself with differing views. Go out of your way to learn more about your country, your history and your politics. Put pressure on your local politicians and encourage others to do the same. And perhaps most importantly, never underestimate the importance of social activism.
Don't rely on the government to fix everything. Get out there with some other true believers and try to fix it yourself. People complain that the government "takes too long to get stuff done" but something I learned in 9th grade is that that is not the purpose of our government. Our governmental system exists specifically to create gridlock and prevent ridiculous laws, measures and spending from getting passed. Our government doesn't exist to get stuff done, it exists first and foremost to protect the freedoms of its citizens, including the right to get stuff done. Join a cause you believe in. Rather than pushing for laws that prevent consumer choice, educate your fellow Americans on buying power, fair labor and conscious sourcing. Rather than outlawing pornography, spread the truth about the dangers of using it. Rather than demanding the government limit free speech, answer hate-speech with soft-spoken, rational discussion.
Preventing governmental intervention is not just about politics. It's about activism. It's about social responsibility. It's about the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
*Header photo courtesy of Directorpoint.