A friend of mine from St Louis wrote a post about the recent issues in Ferguson, and eloquently deconstructed them as coming from an underlying distrust in government and systems. Having just run for public office, I have a deeper understanding of this than ever before. I was asked, multiple times when knocking doors the following:
“Why is a nice girl like you running for office?”
“You seem like a smart and articulate person- why would you want to be part of that mess in Harrisburg?”
“Are you sure you want to do this? Why would any sane person get involved in politics?”
“I like you, but do you have the “cahones” to get something accomplished?”
“They are all horse thieves and pickpockets. Government is hopelessly broken.”
My answer was often simple and straight forward. Running for office was about being hopelessly optimistic that we can be better and make change. It was about believing that we have a choice- sit back and watch things continue as is, or try to make a difference- and making a difference means stepping up and running. It means not being content with business as usual, but willing to do all the hard work necessary to try to improve things.
That said, there are plenty of entrenched interests in the system. We have a political system that encourages candidates to “binge raise” money- raise as much as possible in the shortest period of time, and then “purge” by spending it all. And then we wonder why our government is not always fiscally responsible. The system itself trains people to look at money as an end in and of itself rather than as a tool that reflects our core values.
Add to this the party system where you have to choose the R or D team in order to have the support you need to run for office. Add in the special interest groups that look to the party for recommendations on which candidates will win or lose- and those decisions are often made before the actual candidate is actually in place, because it is pre-determined by the voter registration numbers and gerrymandering of districts.
It’s no wonder why people are fed up. It’s no wonder why they don’t trust the government or the system at all. Frustrations run deep.
When people would ask “Do you think our government is too big?” I would have to ask “What do you think is the right size?” No one knows the answer to that question, because “size” is not the parameter we need to measure, but instead, competency and efficiency. Much like looking at Google analytics, if we could start measuring performance accurately and hold people in government more personally accountable, I think we could make great strides in improving government function overall, and do it at a reasonable and rational cost.
I understand the underlying distrust in the system. But I also understand the answer lies in each one of us, not only showing up to vote, and hopefully having done a little homework to decide who to vote for, but also to take the risk and get more involved in making things better at a local level. Go to a city planning meeting. Attend a school board meeting. Know the folks in your area, and talk to them about what matters to you. Donate to local candidates and show up and talk to your local representatives. If you aren’t involved, but sit passively on the sidelines, nothing will change. Injustices will occur. Frustrations will mount. Bad things will happen as a result.
The bottom line is we have to try to be the change we want to see, or end up being consistently frustrated and dissatisfied. Not everyone has to run for office, but each of us does have to take some responsibility for being engaged, or we will simply end up with the most craven and self-centered people serving in order to bolster their own sense of power and self worth, rather than folks who are truly dedicated to making our communities stronger, long term.
Monday morning quarterbacking the system will never lead to change. Getting involved will.