Washington Is Not Dodge City

Early in his first term, George W. Bush said that "If this were a dictatorship, it'd be a heck of a lot easier, just so long as I'm the dictator." Nine months later, when the September 11 tragedy took place, many of his repressive policies, including the Patriot Act, were enacted. Since that time, he has led as if he were a dictator, trying to concentrate all the power in the executive office, and the American people have stood by passively to allow it.

Why are most Americans so passive? There are many reasons, starting with our system of public education. No Child Left Behind focuses on students passing standardized tests on basic skills. Left behind when teachers are forced to teach to the test especially when it infringes on the time spent teaching history and civics, is the independent thinking and individualism that Americans believe they practice.

Basic skills are essential but understanding the functions and importance of the three branches of government is critical for functioning in this society. I see the deficit in my students every day. Few know who their state or federal representatives are; few vote. They believe that electing one party or one individual can change the culture of Washington without having a clue to what that phrase may mean or how the rhetoric has been manipulated by both political parties and by advocacy groups pushing their own agendas.

As Saul Alinsky, an outstanding community organizer of the last century taught us, a broad coalition can only be brought together on a narrow platform of issues. A broad platform will only gain a narrow coalition. In other words, it is much easier to get a broad cross-section of people on board for a single or small number of issues. That is part of the problem in Washington

A Prussian politician, Otto Von Bismarck (1815-1898) famously said that "Politics is the art of the possible." Why "the possible"? Think what it takes for a decision on a narrow issue to be decided by a town meeting or a school board? Perhaps 100 citizens are in attendance when they have a full house. If you have ever been to a meeting say, on a zoning variance, you know how heated the discussion can be, how hard it is to reach a consensus and how divisive a narrow vote can be.

Visualize 100 senators or 435 representatives in the U.S Congress. They have their party principles; they have the interests of their constituents, all 300+ million of us. They have their own personal priorities. For instance, Rep. Tom Lantos who died earlier this week, was the only Holocaust survivor to serve in the U.S. Congress: everything he did was shaped by that experience, just as a Senator John McCain's work has been informed by the almost six years as a prisoner of war during the Vietnam war. Now get all those people to decide on what to put on a pizza!

Even if the House agrees to legislation, it must win the majority of the Senate to become law. If both houses agree, there is still no guarantee that the president will sign the bill or even allow it to pass into law without his signature. Absent a veto-proof or "supermajority," both houses of Congress may have Democratic majorities but the president can veto it ending months of negotiation.

Ordinary citizens hate the horse-trading that characterizes politics and they've demonstrated their displeasure by giving Congress a lower approval rating than the president As distasteful as it is to outsiders, compromise is the meat and potatoes of representative democracy; there is no way to avoid it. As John Kenneth Galbraith, an economist who served as one of Franklin Delano Roosevelt's advisers, said in response to Bismarck, "Politics is not the art of the possible. It consists in choosing between the disastrous and the unpalatable." Most ordinary citizens have neither the stomach nor the patience to engage in it.

To be good citizens, people need a solid education in learning to think for themselves and exposure to history and to a broad range of opinions. Without the training to think clearly, question authority, and evaluate the rhetoric that governments, politicians, and the media, among others, aim at them, they will be unprepared to resist being hoodwinked by it. And we must be watchful; legislators literally make life and death decisions that affect all Americans every day.

Bismarck also said, "To retain respect for laws and sausages, one must not watch them in the making." Most people turn their faces away from their legislator's work and flock to candidates that claim that they can "clean up Washington." I hate to tell you but elected representatives are not sheriffs or dictators--and Washington is not Dodge City. Change is possible but it takes time, persuasion, and critical mass. If the bodies are not there, that is, if there are not enough members of one party to override a contrary or incompetent president's veto, then all the good intentions in the world will not clean up Washington. If the majority of the people recuse themselves from the process, then the few who are paying attention will rule the day. We can only have a strong society if the majority acts wisely.

Dra. Rosa Maria Pegueros is an associate professor of Latin American History and Women's Studies at the University of Rhode Island.

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