OPINION – Will Rogers is credited with an old saying to the effect of “If you’re thinking you’re a person of some influence, try ordering someone else’s dog around.”
Behind the cowboy humor is a truth that applies in other areas of life where we think we have more influence than we actually do.
One of the biggest delusions under which many Americans labor is the belief that our current government is still responsive to the will of the people. This is sometimes expressed in threadbare platitudes such as, “If you don’t like a particular law, work to get it changed.”
Or this gem, “Our system of government is of the people, by the people, and for the people.”
More often than not, these catchphrases are uttered in response to someone’s criticism or questioning of some aspect of public policy. Whether they’re being wielded in defense of a particular ideology or simply out of a desire to be contrary, there’s an easy way to put such claims to the test.
Ask the person making the pronouncement, when was the last time that he or she directly influenced public policy at any level? Insist that they be specific. What law did they get passed or changed? How exactly did their efforts correct an official wrong?
Most people will either try to change the subject or they’ll start grasping at straws. Don’t let them equivocate.
Registering an opinion with the office of an elected official isn’t the same thing as actually holding that official accountable for his or her voting record. How was their influence felt?
Voting for the lesser of two evils in a national election can hardly be considered the same thing as wielding real influence in crafting public policy.
Even shaping the discussion in a local school board or city council meeting is beyond the reach of most citizens.
The truth that is difficult for many to grasp is that, in most matters of shaping public policy, the influence of the people has been reduced to virtually nothing.
To those who have been paying attention to the political process for any length of time, this should come as no surprise. Those who still trust in the shibboleths they’ve been trained to say since their youth, are going to need more definitive proof.
They should examine the study authored by Martin Gilens from Princeton and Benjamin Page of Northwestern University titled “Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens.” The two professors analyzed 1,779 policy issues and compared the opinions of the American public to the preferences of well-funded special interests in how each affected the final outcome when creating legislative policy.
Suffice it to say that the moneyed elite and corporate lobbyists were the clear winners as to who possessed real influence. The influence of average American people over shaping policy was said to be “minuscule, near-zero,” and even the mass-based interest groups had “minimal influence.”
Put another way, the wealthy elite and the well-connected business organizations have great success shaping public policy while ordinary Americans do not.
Gilens and Page come to the following conclusion:
Economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while average citizens and mass-based interest groups have little or no independent influence.
If policymaking is dominated by powerful business organizations and a small number of affluent Americans, then America’s claims to being a democratic society are seriously threatened.
The next time you hear someone prattle on about how the people still have the ultimate say in how America is run, keep this disconnect in mind. The distance between the government and the people is growing at every level.
This gulf is not the product of some overreaching conspiracy, it is the natural result of a society whose people have allowed their principles to become corrupted. It is what happens when a nation of people become dependent or lazy and have forgotten their own history.
Joseph Sobran summarized our dilemma when he noted:
Ignorant people don’t understand The Federalist Papers, but they understand government checks with their names on them.
A principled populace would know for themselves the intent of the Founders. They would be less easily led to believe they still live under the Constitution just because government leaders say they do.
They would recognize that, even as government claims the power to tell them what the Constitution means, it also keeps changing that meaning in order to expand its own power.
They’d be less susceptible to comfortable lies assuring them that they are still free and have a voice in their governance.
Honest people, though few and far between, prefer knowing precisely where they stand over continuing to cling to false beliefs.
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