Yes, the laboratory for this site, Small Town Civics is, in general, all small New York State towns. But, more specifically, I am interested in evaluating the democratic governing process in the Town of Colden, NY–my hometown.
One issue to be developed in the months ahead is why so many people living in small New York towns feel politically powerless. While some of the reasons may be unique to small units of governments, like Colden, NY, I contend that there are also universal factors that have generated throughout America a feeling of powerlessness among its citizens.
The following essay is drawn from my new book, America, Democracy & YOU.
Copies are available directly from firstname.lastname@example.org
Or by double clicking on the book’s nearby cover image.
Submitted by: Ronald Fraser, Small Town Civics Administrator
Why Americans Feel Politically Powerless
Public opinion polls tell us a solid majority of Americans living in the world’s most celebrated self-rule democracy suffer from a serious case of political powerlessness.
A 2004 national poll by Peter D. Hart Research Associates reports that “Many Americans feel that they have lost influence over their own government and are looking for ways to regain control.” When asked who has a great deal of influence over decisions made in Washington, D.C.:
68% said large campaign contributors
56% said lobbyists
20% said the general public
A 2011 national poll conducted by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press found the relationship between the sovereign American people and their elected representatives is, to say the least, a rocky one.
69% of the respondents said elected officials don’t care what people like me think
72% said elected officials quickly lose touch with voters back home
What’s going on here? Are we witnessing a slam-dunk hijacking of the American democracy by wealthy campaign financiers and powerful corporations? Why have the American people, the so-called popular sovereign of our democracy, not challenged this political take over?
In high school government and civics high school classrooms across America — including Holland Central School — young citizens-to-be are indoctrinated with a version of democracy based more on historic and political myths than political reality.
Magruder’s American Government, a widely used textbook revised and published annually since 1917, is a typical example of schoolbook democracy. Here students learn the U.S. Constitution is built on a few basic principles, including popular sovereignty: “In the United States, all political power belongs to the people. The people are sovereign. Popular sovereignty means that people are the only source of governmental power. Government can govern only with the consent of the governed.”
As school kids mature into young adults and gain their own first-hand experience of the political world around them, they soon realize how ill-prepared they—the sovereign people—are to compete with wealthy election campaign donors and professional corporate lobbyists who dominate, between elections, the behind the scenes deal making that determines who gets what.
In addition, studies show that once in office lawmakers give top priority to the care and feeding of their election campaign backers and corporate lobbyists, not the citizens who actually voted them into office.
No wonder citizens feel angry and politically powerless. But why don’t citizens unite and push back?
The late Yale professor Edmund Morgan, author of, Inventing the People: the Rise of Popular Sovereignty in England and America, provides a plausible explanation for the failure of American citizens to react more strongly against the outsourcing of their democracy to the fat cats.
Clinging to their classroom version of democracy in which they are the ultimate and legitimate political power in America, citizens, according to Morgan, willingly suspend their disbelief in schoolbook myths and pretend they are true——even with abundant real-life evidence that they are not.
“The success of government,” says Morgan, “requires the acceptance of fictions, requires the willing suspension of disbelief, requires us to believe that the emperor is clothed even though we can see that he is not…Government requires make-believe…Make believe that the people have a voice or make believe that the representatives of the people are the people.”
This tug-of-war between political myths and political reality drives citizens out of the political arena and, in effect, outsources the American democracy to wealthy campaign financiers and powerful corporations.
It is time Americans quit bellyaching to pollsters and get busy rebuilding a government responsive to it citizens, not to the fat cats.