Dear people who complain:
There was never a golden age in American politics. If you despair at how depressing our politics are, recall that in 1800 John Adams and Thomas Jefferson engaged in some of the nastiest PR campaigns against each other. Elections are about power, bringing the best and worst out of everyone who wants power, regardless of their motivation for wanting it.
While it is true that a singular nasty example doesn’t define the past, or the present, politics in a democracy is inherently frustrating. A government by and for the people includes your stupid neighbor, your weird cousin, the person with the religious beliefs you find absurd, everyone you stare at on the bus (or who stares at you), the people who own the company you work for and the ones begging for change on your way there. There is no way for a government by and for the people to function without forcing these diverse views, needs and desires into a dialog with each other. This is the system as it was intended to function. How much maturity and civility we bring to this inevitability is up to us to decide.
It’s really a miracle it works at all and for as long as it has. Part of why is a collective faith in the process and that everyone should get a chance to participate equally, even those we passionately disagree with. Power changes hands in this country with surprising frequency and civilized grace relative to the history of civilization and for all its horrors and disappointments it is still a wonder to behold.
A common refrain heard during election season is “voting is picking the lesser of two evils”, a jab at the disappointing quality of our candidates. This assumes we’ve historically had good ones, which, once you get past the 5 or 6 great presidents most American’s agree on, is increasingly disappointing the further you study it. And when people who make this complaint are asked personally if they would run for office, of any kind, they generally say “no way”. We know how undesirable life as a politician is, yet simultaneously we’re surprised by the low quality of the candidates we have. Yet these facts are directly related to each other.
We are not promised good candidates in the Constitution. Most of us invest little energy towards the process of picking candidates (which involves participating in a party months before an election), understanding how they’re chosen or even helping decide the winners in races: 58% of American’s voted in 2008. And that was just a vote, which takes only minutes: who knows how much time they invested in considering their choices. Complaints and apathy are dangerous bedfellows and we suffer both in great supply. If we are truly passionate, the system offers us countless local elections where our influence is far greater, and collectively, has far more impact on national elections that we tend to think.
I believe, more or less, we get the government we deserve. Paying close attention twice a decade isn’t paying much attention at all. We are an apathetic and divided nation and its those who are undecided the longest who curiously yield greater influence. And while voting is a right, there is far more to be gained in the long run by voting in the interest of the nation as a whole, which requires inquiring beyond the self serving echo chambers we love to pretend is the entirety of the world.
Sadly it’s only when things hit close enough to home that we start watching our representatives, senators, mayors and governors regularly, and participating at levels of government where our vote carries much more weight, where the kind of change we want is both deserved and possible.
Nothing is learned by throwing wrenches at the engine of an already struggling machine. Revolutions almost never succeed, a fact we deny since we are one of the few nations in history to be born from a successful one. It’s only by getting inside and dirtying our hands, or at least studying the system to see how it was designed to work, and was designed to be changed, that empty frustrations can be replaced by meaningful action. No matter how small those actions are, they have far more value to everyone than grandstanding, complaining or voting in protest.
The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.
It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government, except all the others.
[Updated 10-31-16 – minor edits]