Democracy in Action

When I began to hang out in newsrooms, I quickly learned that every journalist hated covering the town meetings, in which school boards, zoning commissions, city councils and county boards of ‘dis-‘n’-dat sat stone-faced on an elevated platform as the rough-and-tumble-dried stood and spoke, one at a time, about the issues that concerned them.

Because I mostly wrote features instead of hard news, I was never assigned a town meeting. But I knew those who did. They left the newsroom bright and cheery as the sun set. They came back at 10 p.m. dull-eyed and slack-faced, clutching a cup of take-out coffee, knowing that even if they captured accurately everything that was said, spelled every the name correctly, and got it all in before the 11 p.m. deadline, their work would be chopped down until it was barely two paragraphs, and then, most likely, get cut further, or not even appear in the the next day’s local news section because a last-minute advertisement took up the space.

What would happen to their reporting? Was it cached somewhere, just in case someone who spoke at the meeting went berserk and shot up a neighbor’s above-ground swimming pool? Would the unpublished article be referenced if one of the officials on the board ran for a position in state politics and won?

What everybody knew, but really didn’t care about, was that these meetings were a crucial part of small town American life, even if what happened at them was as far from the sentimental scenes on Norman Rockwell magazine illustrations as the front page news they aspired to report.

Here you saw the newly elected struggle to keep their composure as they were reviled by those who did not vote for them. Here you heard the rage and frustration of citizens who really did have something better to do than wait their turn to complain about the way a law was enforced, grumble about the neighbor’s above-ground swimming pool–erected in obvious violation of zoning regulations– leaking chlorinated water into their vegetable garden or assail the hypocrisy inherent in the proposed budget. Here you watched a person look back nervously over his shoulder to see if any those who had promised to show up and lend moral support, actually showed up to watch him speak for them. Here you heard a self-proclaimed payer of taxes “taxpayer” talk about truth, justice and the American way, relate it to an issue that had absolutely nothing to do truth, justice and the American way, and then walk out because he was not in the least interested in hearing from anyone else.

When what I believed would be a temporary flirtation with journalism became a series of difficult marriages, I came to know some outstanding political reporters. From them I learned of a different side of the profession, where these meetings were a way to learn how American democracy actually worked.

Go to enough meetings, I was told, and you begin to recognize who really has the power. Go to a few more and you can connect the dots that link the powerful with the influential, the people with money to the people who protect or tax that money. Finally, you understand what is called constituent services, how those in power further the survival and good fortune of themselves by taking care of those who support them.

Forget about what you learned in high school civics about the “checks and balances” created by the authors of the US Constitution. In local politics, the checks are what staffers cash to get “street money” to pay for votes, suppress dissent and make things happen whose cost can’t appear in public records. The balances are fictions–claims made in speeches and proclamations–that, no matter how often reporters prove them false, are intended to help us believe that ours remains the best of all worlds.

And the greatest fiction of all is the belief that democracy is about “the people” being in charge. This wasn’t true in Athens, where the custom of permitting male property-owners sitting on a hillside the privilege to say Yea or Nay over how money from silver mines may be spent (the Athenians chose to build warships with which they created a small empire that lasted for a few generations until they lost a war against the Spartans, who were ruled by a pair of kings, who made sure that Athens would be a tyranny until it was conquered by the Romans) created the idea of rule by the people.

But we want to believe it was. And the great thing about attending a public meeting, as I did recently, is that as long as this belief can be indulged, people who really don’t have any power can feel that they have some control over their destiny.

It can be a beautiful, and ugly, thing to see. It’s beautiful when people stand up and say things that tug at your heart. Let’s do more to help the unfortunate! Let’s give a raise to the people who do the most good! Let’s have a parade or a proclamation to show how much we want to honor those who work so hard for us!

It’s ugly when someone vents anger at the powerful, no matter how much the powerful may deserve it, or spews a dark cloud of discontent about taxes, zoning or the neighbor’s barking dog. Because the anger reminds everyone that politics has limits, the most important being that it isn’t a source of permanent personal happiness. Local government does not exist to please us. Rather, it makes things possible that would not be possible any other way.

We may not like the result. We may grumble at the placement of a traffic light where we previously zoomed on by. We may wonder why the people we elected to not raise taxes have raised them again this year. We may discover that the commonest of common sense cannot explain how any of our tax money has been spent. We may notice, if any of us stand up and make a little speech, that some of the powerful are looking at their watches, or their cell phones, or their tablets, or they’re passing notes to teach other, because they just can’t endure another person telling them what they should be doing.

We may tell ourselves that if things were just a little bit different, we would run for public office, win and make everything right!

What these politic reporters told me was that few people in politics ever agree on what is right. We hope that people of good moral character are elected, and that these people surround themselves with vestments cut from the same cloth. But the purpose of an election is not to deliver the best person for the job. It’s to create a path to power that is clear enough and seemingly fair enough so that we don’t have civil wars every six months.

At best we who are not powerful may be able to empower those who seem to share our values. At worst we can count the days until we cast our vote for the next person.

But we get a chance to stand up and say something. I urge you to try it. I did, a long time ago.

And it really made all the difference.






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