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Responsibility doesn’t end at polls

With the political campaigns put to rest for another year, most of us are breathing a sigh of relief and going on to other things. After all, we bore all those terrible TV attack ads, doled out a lot of non-tax deductible dollars, and even went to the polls and cast our votes. It is a real temptation to feel it is now proper to turn it over to those we elected and let them do the work for which they campaigned. They are to represent us, aren’t they? We’ll send them off to represent us, we say. But it just doesn’t work that way in the United States. We didn’t elect a dictator. We are, indeed, to be a representative form of democracy and our governmental leaders are to do just that ‘ take our ideas and needs and hopes to the arena of discussion and decision making.
On Election Day, I asked a young lady if she had voted. Her reply was depressing, yet not uncommon. ‘I don’t vote,’ she said, ‘because everything is too complicated, and I don’t understand it all. So I leave it to others.’
I hope ‘the others’ she refers to can either read her mind or have lived her identical life; otherwise her needs and conditions will not be included in the mix when issues are addressed.
Our world, its people and their events are complex and confusing. The day before the elections, I returned from the annual meeting of The National Trust for Historic Preservation. Some might think that an organization with a name like that just studied old buildings and wanted the world to be put on hold with a mind set of the past. Not so. The workshops and speeches addressed the same challenges that are faced by us as we go about our days in this busy world. And don’t their topics sound familiar to us here in Southern Indiana: urban sprawl, rising energy costs, smart growth, zoning regulations, economic development initiatives, heritage tourism, educational demands, immigration shifts and social unrest. These are not simple issues and are the same challenges faced by all social entities of today.
Now I found to compound the problem of understanding all that was involved in a topic discussed, was the use of acronyms. Acronyms, that ‘in-house’ jargon used by professionals who have studied and talked on the subject extensively. Not wanting to appear dumb, the tendency often is to not ask questions, not debate and certainly not challenge someone using such speak. Organizations, projects and concepts are called by initials that represent the whole title they bear. It does speed up the process, but it sure strips it of actual value.
It reminded me of my first meeting as a board member of Silver Crest Development Center. The established members of the board kept referring to the ‘gravity free area’ of a new building; I finally summoned up the courage to ask exactly what the ‘gravity free area’ was. ‘The swimming pool,’ they all responded. For years after whenever someone started to address a name with a set of letters from the alphabet, everyone would ask, ‘Is that the swimming pool you are talking about?’ It brought a big laugh to our meeting and even better, a lot of dissecting issues and really trying to understand.
One of the responsibilities we as citizens have, now that the elections are over, is to demand that those we elected to represent us present the discussions to us in a way that tells us they understand what they are talking about and that we can too. And when they talk in a comprehensible fashion, we must take the time and effort to listen and respond.
No more hiding behind pseudo-informed language or positions. No more assuming the speaker knows more than you do and has it all under control.
Even when the language is clear, the issues are not. What is economic growth to one is urban sprawl to another. What is seen by one group as good farm land conservation is understood as the loss of a tax base to others. Often environmental concerns carry worries of increases in costs and loss of manufacturing opportunities. We can’t iron out these issues without public discussion at the local level on local issues.
And to confound the issues, they are all inter-related. We can’t alter one without intentionally or unintentionally altering something else. Urban sprawl affects quality of life, affects energy efficiency, affects environmental concern which affects taxing bases which affects public infrastructure which affects urban sprawl. Now that is enough to make one’s head go dizzy, and it is all going on around us all the time.
Legislators on the national and state level do listen to constituents’ concerns, I know. For years, I would sit in on discussions by legislators impacted by letters, e-mails and phone calls from people in their home districts, and, oh my, did they sit up and listen when folks brought their voices in person to the elected official. Believe me, governors and mayors, city council members and county officeholders respond the same way. Regular elections do make it necessary for those holding seats of responsibility to take notice of their constituents’ concerns. Why else do we worry when big infusions of money are donated to a candidate during a campaign? What do donors want as a result from that donation? Well, they do support someone who can prove they share the same basic philosophy on civic matters. Donors put their support behind those who advocate their view on specific issues. But mainly big donors want access ‘ the right to sit and discuss an issue with an elected officeholder. To be honest, that doesn’t take big bucks. Elected officials listen and respond more to organized concerned, vocal and persistent constituents. People who figure out how to gather others together who share their concern, bring a great deal of public attention to an issue, are a force to be reckoned with and public servants know it. Good elected officials are, in addition, grateful for the information that people personally involved in situations can bring to them.
When was the last time you went to a town board meeting? How often have you written a letter to your state superintendent of public instruction? Have you ever attended a legislative study committee in Indianapolis? When was the last time you picked up a phone and called your U.S. Senator’s office? Will you gather some of your friends to talk about a current problem in your neighborhood? Do you discuss public affairs at home with your children? I imagine you are saying, ‘All that you suggest would take such time during a life filled with the overload of daily schedules.’ You are right. A participatory democracy is what we wave the flag about all the time, and it takes a great deal of down-to-earth hard work and time from all of us. But who would trade with another form of government?
You cannot make a difference in the world you live in, unless you take part in it, if we are ever to create a different peaceful and productive place to live.