An informed public is a great equalizer in politics

I just returned from a trip to Wisconsin to visit family for New Year’s Day. In the midst of a pinochle game, the topic of politics came up. The conversation started with speculation on what Democrats would run for President and then evolved into a discussion on what’s wrong with the system. Not that we were able to solve all the problems, but when we worked on the problem of how to repair the election process, we did come up with a few intriguing ideas.

Although voter turnout is distressingly low, the consensus was if you’re not educated on the candidates, don’t vote. This makes sense, really. When you buy a house, you research the neighborhood, the schools, the transportation infrastructure. Electing the person who votes on issues that impact our daily lives education, transportation, finances, is even more important than buying a house. The decisions made are with us for a lifetime. With a house, if you really don’t like the neighborhood or the schools, you can move. Try undoing legislation that has become law. Electing our representatives deserves the same level of research. Would you buy a house you’d never seen? People vote for a politician they’ve never seen. Would you take the realtor’s word on schools and recreation facilities? People vote on the basis of obviously biased campaign literature.

No one ever said democracy was easy. We can’t just sit back and expect to be told what to do. Bob Dole got it right in a speech when he said, “politics is not a spectator sport. You can’t just sit on the sidelines.” We must be educated and active. The people who put the “don’t blame me, I voted for…” bumper stickers on their cars must assume the role of loyal opposition, of making sure that when promises are made, promises are kept. We must monitor performance and if it’s not up to par, fire the incumbent and hire the challenger. That’s all an election is a job interview.

We decided much of the voter apathy is the fault of the politicians themselves. When is the last time you heard “honest” and “politician” in the same sentence describing the same person? Interestingly, to a person we all wanted Colin Powell to run for President but in the same breath felt he had too much integrity to subject himself to the campaign process. Politicians generally make it difficult to find out where they actually stand on an issue and that frustrates us. Votes on bills are interpreted to suit the candidate. Campaign literature is phrased to be as noncommittal as possible. Notes used during debates provide the candidate with the acceptable phrases to use. Finger pointing is common the state candidates say it’s the fault of the localities and vice versa.

What we need are leaders. There are no contemporary politicians with the passion to incite us to action. We have no Patrick Henry’s encouraging us to “give me liberty or give me death;” no John Kennedy’s calling us to “ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country;” no Grover Cleveland’s asking, “what is the use of being elected or reelected unless you stand for something?”

We believe that interest groups should have the courage of their convictions in supporting their candidates. One uncle worked with the Sierra Club this past year interviewing candidates and helping decide on endorsements. A candidate that he personally worked for wasn’t endorsed by the Sierra Club because they felt she didn’t have a chance to win and interest groups want to be able to boast that a high percentage of their endorsed candidates won their races. But if a group feels strongly that one candidate is better than another, we felt they should go out and work for that candidate anyway and give that candidate the endorsement.

If you don’t take a chance on a candidate, you never know what may happen. And that is the benefit of being educated on the issues and the candidates. So this year, as you’re making your New Year’s resolutions, make one to be better informed. Know the issues, know the candidates and know the record. We’ll all be better for it.

Denise Oppenhagen lives in Lake Ridge, where she keeps close tabs on every incumbent and challenger for state and local office.

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