Governing in a democratic system requires a delicate balance. Those in power must create systems strong enough to prevent mob rule but not so strong as to deny meaningful input and participation from citizens.
This balance is difficult to achieve even with the best intentions. But sometimes, where we find ourselves today, the elected do not even attempt to strike this balance and disregard the importance of the voices of the people who put them in charge. Input from citizens is simply no longer welcome among the ruling class. Instead of persuading citizens on policy and politics, elected officials dismiss them and tell them to “expect less.”
The message is plain: Your concerns are not valid and not welcome here.
Nowhere has the flippant attitude toward the people been bolder than the recent (internet-scrubbed) letter from the National School Board Association (NSBA) to the Department of Justice. The now walked back letter classified engaged citizens as “domestic terrorists” and requested the full force of federal law enforcement be deployed to back up school boards against concerned and agitated parents.
The letter provides no hard data or testimony from local law enforcement agencies currently fulfilling their role as first responders to unruly public meetings. Instead, it provides a handful of vague antidotes that are easily countered by stories of elected officials going legally too far in shutting down public comment or being overly dismissive and aggressive towards members of the community.
Attorney General Merrick Garland responded to the letter, instructing the FBI to take up the matter. The response memo from Garland’s office carefully sidesteps the “domestic terrorism” language. Despite careful wordsmithing and walk backs, it remains that the FBI is now engaged in policing how local citizens provide their locally elected officials input and feedback. The effect on participation is—and was designed to be—chilling.
Our system of government demands the very type of local participation being discouraged by overzealous leaders displeased that they must be accountable to more than their own ideas and preferences. A recent State Policy Network study, conducted by Heart+Mind Strategies, shows three-quarters (76%) of Americans believe local engagement is critical to maintain the American system of government, and a similar number (73%) agree that the most meaningful change happens at the local level.
Furthermore, the average American discounts the notion that people who participate in local meetings are extremists. Fifty-six percent say there is little-to-no truth to the idea. In fact, it is government that people think is out of line. Nearly three-in-five Americans believe the government has taken advantage of recent emergency situations to limit our freedoms (57%) and that the government is using newfound powers to circumvent well-established democratic procedures (59%).
In such an environment, it is no wonder only 34% have a high level of confidence in federal elections and only 14% have a high degree of confidence their elected officials represent them.
The most effective way to achieve the balance democratic rule requires is to give citizens a meaningful way to participate in the process. The buy-in created from these opportunities creates trust in the entire system which leads to a more secure and stable country. The aggressive campaign of the current ruling class to shut down participation and intimidate those who might challenge the status quo is not only un-American but will lead to disastrous consequences for our country.
In 2022, State Policy Network will be taking a deeper look at how Americans are engaged in their local community and the democratic process and how the Network can encourage further engagement.
In the meantime, check out I, Citizen—the new book from SPN Executive Vice President Tony Woodlief that’s empowering communities, organizations, and citizens to reclaim the most American of freedoms: our right to self-governance.
The political elite and media would have us all believe our nation is divided, but the real threat to our country isn’t Red vs. Blue America. It’s the quiet collusion within our nation’s political class to take away our right to self-governance. I, Citizen cuts through the political theater with a message of hope: We the People can still make this country work. This book is the story of how we got to this point and what we can do to reclaim authority over our lives and communities.
Learn more about the book and purchase your copy at icitizenbook.com.