Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Participating in Representative Democracy

As we learned in high school civics, ours is not a pure democracy, but rather, a representative democracy. We don't vote on every issue confronting our country; we elect representatives to do so for us. Yet when we elect those representatives we don’t know every issue upon which they will vote. Which brings us to the second component of representative democracy that is often ignored: Communicating with elected representatives.

We hear about high paid lobbyists and special interest groups working to sway votes. Certainly those are important parts of our system. What is often forgotten is the power that each of us has to let our representatives know what we're thinking. I'm not naive enough to suggest that a handful of phone calls will be enough to overcome organized lobbying efforts. But most elected representatives (those who are not complete ideologues) care about what their constituents believe. Most members of Congress (and state legislatures) take seriously their jobs and the representative positions that they hold. And they want to get reelected.

Most elected officials will tell you that they hear from constituents on controversial issues and they hear about things that constituents oppose. They are less likely to hear from constituents about more mundane issues or about issues that constituents support. And, with the exception of the biggest and most controversial issues, I believe that you'll find that elected officials don't hear from nearly as many voters as you might think.

So, next time you hear or read about an issue or topic that is important to you, take a few minutes and contact your elected representatives. Tell them what you support or oppose and why. Be courteous and cogent, but not silent. Don't expect democracy to work with no effort other than pulling a lever or marking a ballot every few years; instead, take the initiative and participate. It's easy, doesn't take much time, and just might help make our country a better place.

(I wrote this post after calling the offices of Sen. Lugar and Sen. Bayh to tell them that I support the nomination of Dawn Johnson to the Office of Legal Counsel. I was prompted to call by the report in today's The Indianapolis Star that Republican state senators had sent Sen. Lugar and Sen. Bayh a letter asking them to drop their support for Johnson because she is pro-choice.)

Update (September 11, 2015): Fixed a typo in the title. Seriously.

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