The Power of Prime

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Politics: 3 Words I Wish Washington Would Learn

Do our elected representatives need to retake American History class?

Recent surveys have shown that trust and regard that Americans hold for their elected officials in Washington is at historic lows. And those government officials wonder why they are aren't on anyone's Most Popular list these days. Let me count the ways: bailouts, backroom deals, tax cuts for the wealthy, extreme partisanship, election-year politics, the list goes on and on. This behavior among those who purport to represent us is really just business as usual in the Beltway. But this wanton disregard feels like a real betrayal lately given that most ordinary Americans are having a hard enough time without being kicked while they're down by the very elected representatives who are supposed to be helping them up.

It seems clear to those of every political persuasion that many (dare I say most) politicians have lost touch with those whom they are supposed to represent. I can understand that politicians have different ideas about how to best serve their constituents, but their legislative efforts these days are so disconnected from the needs and goals of regular Americans that, to paraphrase Abraham Lincoln, they can't even fool some of the people some of the time into thinking that they care about us. Here's a great example. The Senate Banking Committee responsible for creating banking reform legislation recently met with representatives from the banking industry (read lobbyists) to get their input. Did the committee also meet with a representatives of, well, us regular folks to get our feedback about the legislation? That's a big negative. What input could the banking lobbyists provide other than to ensure that the reform was favorable to them and harmful to us? What benefit would the committee garner from such a meeting? Oh yeah, how naïve of me, campaign contributions.

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I think that our elected representatives need to return to school to take American History again (which they obviously failed the first time around) and learn three words that might enable them to actually earn the title of "representative."

The first word our government should learn is "of," as in "of the people." The of of which I speak refers to the notion that our government should be comprised of people like us rather than from an oligarchical cabal that shows little resemblance to ordinary Americans. Yet, it has become painfully clear to those of us who belong to the "us" group that our government is dominated, both within and outside, by those with wealth and status who have little regard for anyone else.

The second word our government should learn is "by," as in "by the people." The by of which I speak refers to the notion that our government is a proxy for its citizens, in other words, they = us. In this role, we should be able to trust that our best interests are served in Washington because they want the same thing as we do because, well, they are us. Unfortunately, they ≠ us, they = $$ + power and we = nada. With this disconnect between America's citizenry and its elected representatives, they can still claim to be elected, but can't fairly claim to be representative.

The third word our government should learn is "for," as in "for the people." The for of which I speak refers to the notion, now seemingly quaint and outdated, that all activities in Washington are devoted to serving the best interests of its citizens. Even in a political culture as polarized as ours, we can all agree that the symbiotic relationship that currently exists in Washington between our elected officials and special-interest groups serves the best interests of those in power with only the occasional appearance of concern for us lowly citizens.

I would like to see two things happen to those gentlemen and ladies whom we did elect, but don't deserve to be called our representatives.

The next time they are up for election, we the American people assert the last vestige of power we still do hold and demonstrate to them in no uncertain terms that if they will not act as our representatives, then we will not elect them again.

But before that, those in Washington should be forced to stand in front of the American people and repeat the last sentence of the Gettysburg Address one time for every time that they met with a lobbyist or took special-interest money. Because those people in Washington whom we elected obviously don't know that last sentence, I'll provide crib notes (with special emphasis on the last words): "It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us-that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion-that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain-that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom-and that government: of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth."

Jim Taylor, Ph.D., teaches at the University of San Francisco.

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