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Re-Examining Politics

Attitudes, Not Government, Threaten Nation's Future

By David H. Goldbrenner

As a Democrat, I find it hard to fathom the recent elections that left both Houses of Congress in Republican hands and made a man named "Newt" Speaker of the House. That man plans to have a political tract he wrote, entitled "Contract With America," read at the start of every business day in Congress for the first 100 days of the next session.

Whew.

What happened? This very same question, I'm sure, has been on the minds and lips of Americans the world over. There are a variety of explanations, one of which I will proceed to reject offhand: specifically, that the Republican candidates were so meritorious that the American public immediately embraced them as the shining path of hope and voted them into office.

This election is a house cleaning--the culmination of 40 years of a mostly Democratic Congress during which things didn't item to get much better. Sure, the Iron Curtain fell, but the inner cities are still festering; now we have AIDS and crack to add to the ailments that taxpayer dollars are expected to cure. So the public decided it was time for a change and voted against the Democrats.

Of course, President Clinton's image didn't help matters much. The New York Times reported that according to one poll, a third of voters questioned said the President's performance turned them against the Democratic incumbents in Congress.

But it would be naive to assume the Republicans can succeed where their predecessors failed. Politics is an extremely complex process, and it's not possible to split effective and ineffective policies along party lines. It's difficult to get any sort of useful, long-term legislation passed these days. In fact, I'm going to be so bold as to predict that in the foreseeable future the American government will be no more productive or effective than it has been in the past half-century, regardless of its political make-up.

Why? Because of the politicians, perhaps? "They're corrupt," we the public pronounce. "They're superficial and full of hot air and they waffle and write bad checks, which I'd really like to be able to do but can't. Plus they're always voting themselves pay raises." It's no secret that Americans are cynical, very cynical, about government and often see voting as choosing the lesser of two evils.

I'm now going to go out on a limb and make two assertions. The first is that politicians are not as bad as we think. Sure, some are corrupt, but the majority aren't, and the simple fact is that politicians work for much less money than most of them could make in the private sector. In fact, i'd be willing to bet that most politicians are really trying to do a good job and serve their constituents well. Their motivation for doing so may be questionable (are they idealistic or simply power-hungry?), but I think that given the chance they could collectively succeed.

And therein lies my second assertions. Quite simply, it is that we, the American public, are derailing the political system that several dozen highly dedicated individuals devoted their lives to hammering out some 200 odd years ago.

Our first fault is our relative ignorance and apathy concerning politics. Not only is American voter turnout abysmal, most of our education in political matters comes from sound-bites and tabloids. This may even be causal; it has been statistically shown that the more informed voters are, the more likely they are to participate in the process. Would the Republicans have swept as they did if American voters had studied the individual policies and records of their candidates, instead of acting on the general impression of Democratic failure and simply, effort-lessly throwing the Democrats out of office?

The second fault is our complete inability to either realize or accept the need for delaying gratification in order to effect change. The term system has great strengths and weaknesses; it keeps the government from becoming entrenched and tyrannical, but it also makes long-term planning difficult and leaves such ideas at the whim of voters. With our MTV attention span of roughly 15 seconds, we cannot stand a politician who cannot immediately rectify any situation, nor can we make short-term sacrifices for long-term gain. For instance, we refuse to accept years or even decades of higher taxes as necessary in order to solve social and economic problems.

Sure, we may accept the higher rates for a few years, but when things don't magically get better, we begin to get antsy. "All those taxes, and there are still poor people around. The money must all be going to governmental inefficiency and pork-barrel politics." So we vote in a new face who promises to lower taxes, and then a year later we scream when our local fire station closes down for lack of funding. We want solutions, but we don't want to pay for them.

One might argue that Congress has been Democratic long enough that effective long-term policies would have emerged if the politicians were capable of creating them. But one must also realize that the composition of the government is incidental if politicians must react to the whims of an uninformed public just to keep their jobs. We are so fickle that our elected officials are almost forced to waffle and break promises in order to be both effective and reelected.

The solution? Some readers might think that I'm leading up to some sort of readjustment of term periods, or massive governmental attempts to educate the populace or increase voter turnout. Or even something as abhorrent as tests to determine if a citizen is sufficiently informed to vote. I firmly assert that these measures would be ideologically wrong as well as practically ineffective.

The system is good; our attitudes need readjustment. The political healing of America must be a subtle thing that comes voluntarily and from within us. People must decide that our society is something worth spending time on, and must then discard the easy veil of cynicism and take a deeper look at matter.

To that end, I would urge everyone reading this to reflect on whether you have done your part to support our political process, whether you have taken the time educate yourself and to vote in an informed manner. If you haven't, please do. And if not, at least stop complaining.

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