A lot of Americans delude themselves that they live in a democracy and that they control the government. Actually, we don’t live in a democracy, and we control the government for only one day every two years.
The form of our government is a republic. That means we don’t get to decide issues by referendum, at least not at the federal level. Instead, we elect representatives for two-year terms and senators for six-year terms. During their term of office, they can do pretty much what they want, whether we like it or not. There is no recall authority in our Constitution, and in fact, letters to representatives and senators don’t have much effect.
But on one day only every two years, control of the government reverts to the people. On Election Day, according to republican theory, we judge our representatives and senators. If we approve of what they’ve done, we re-elect them. If we disapprove, we elect new ones.
Every two years, all 435 members of the House and one-third of the Senate must stand for re-election. Thus, the Constitution gives the American people the power to instigate a peaceful revolution. Can you imagine the political impact if 435 representatives and a third of the Senate were replaced in one election? Politics in America would never be the same.
Alas, we have corrupted our political process. Mistake No. 1 is universal suffrage. Voting should be considered a privilege that has to be earned, not a right. People so ignorant they couldn’t tell you the name of their state capital should not be allowed to vote.
Before a foreigner can become an American citizen, he has to pass a test about the country’s history and its form of government. We should require passing that same test before anyone is issued a voter-registration card. Any native-born American who can’t pass a test routinely passed by people from foreign countries doesn’t deserve to be allowed the privilege of voting.
It is from the fertile ground of ignorant voters that demagoguery grows like a kudzu vine. The worst kind of politicians want to keep expanding the vote, some wanting to include convicted felons, and others even noncitizens. We should be restricting the vote, not expanding it.
A second failure is the fault of the press. It is an axiom of self-government that if the people are provided with accurate information, they can make the right decisions. The contrary is also true — without accurate information, it’s impossible to make the right decisions.
The media ought to be all over their respective representatives and senators like bears on honey. Alas, most papers that have a Washington bureau staff it with people who seem to think that it is demeaning to cover stories with a local angle. They’d rather traipse behind The New York Times and the network faces to cover the president. What the media should be doing is reporting every vote for or against an issue, where their congressional members live, who they hang out with, who finances their campaigns and what are their opinions on the daily issues. Most of the time, most newspapers tell their readers zip about their delegation.
Finally, there is the fault that lies with the people. Despite a lack of both danger and threats, time and time again we see only a small percentage of people turn out to vote. It’s apathy that keeps people at home in most cases, and the cure for that is, miss two elections and your voter-registration card is revoked.
To put it in terms of a fantasy story, there is one magic day that occurs every two years. A door is opened, and you can enter to exercise your chance to influence or change your government, then the door closes and won’t open again for another two years.
Charley Reese [send him mail] has been a journalist for 49 years.