Public Opinion Leaders v. The Hired Help

Few Republican elected officials today are what we need them to be: public opinion leaders. This article is from the Dispatches archive. It first posted six years ago today.

The Old Testament book of Proverbs (chapter 29 verse 18) reads: “Where there is no vision, the people perish.” There is an amazing lack of vision among Republicans and conservatives about what is possible in America today. Despair and pessimism reign. Instead of searching out the potential for changing things, too many on the political right spend their time bemoaning the sad state of affairs.

It is the opinion of this writer that our side needs to quit the whining and do what previous generations have always had to do: buck up and do what is necessary to make improvements. This one and the following two columns will address one glaring change in the political arena that is possible immediately: our elected representatives can become public opinion leaders.

I would go so far as to suggest that this should be the number one criteria for vetting candidates and determining the performance of those already in office. Will they/do they use their office to bring sufficient attention to what ails the government at the level they serve? Will they/do they put as their highest priority the work of making their constituents aware of how the problems can be fixed?

This is a blanket indictment. I am talking about all levels of government and all elected posts. Yesterday I spent a bit of time talking about the school board level. The same applies for city council members, park district or library board members. You name it. Here in Illinois we have more levels of government than any other state in the union, yet Illinois citizens are among the most uninformed.

“Oh,” you say, “but we elect these people to do a job. They’ve got enough work to do without being a policy evangelist.” In my twenty-five years of being around elected officials I have met very few who were experts in what needed to be reformed and how to reform it. A couple of state legislators I have known were incredibly good — but they are the exception to the rule. Most rely on staff to dig deep into the details and then they will receive briefings on the ins and outs of all the particular matters.

So what do most of these elected officials do on the job hour after hour day after day if they’re not hip-deep in writing legislation or exercising oversight of the existing bureaucracies in their charge? I’ve got some bad news for you.

First, forget oversight of the government and programs already in place. Oversight is almost nonexistent. Most government employees and agencies are on auto-pilot. Unless there is a major screw up, bureaucrats operate without the close attention of your elected representatives.

Second,  the fine points of legislation or ordinances or resolutions are rarely developed by the elected officials. Yes, they are reviewed by those who are elected, but they are not the devils who work out the details. Again, except for the rare breed that has the interest and capacity to delve deeply into specific policy, most elected officials are generalists responsible for too many issues to pay much attention to all.

It is a cliché though true: when we elect someone they work for us. Yes, but to do what work? Be a legislative mechanic? I have got news for you — that is not how they spend their time. They would like you to think they are agonizing over the expanse of minutia, but they are not.  The condition of our government at all levels is evidence of the fact that those we elect aren’t properly minding the store.

Think about what would happen if those we elect would act as the chief conduits for information to the public. First, our elected representatives would be forced to pay a lot more attention to what they’re doing so they knew enough to convey the facts. Second, our elected reps would be forced to come to grips with the ugly reality that is often their responsibility to fix. Third, they would be forced to hire better staff so instead of merely reporting bad news they could report on the successful progress of government reform.

Instead of our elected officials focusing on winning public support for righting the ship of state, they hide away and play helpless bystanders as things continually get worse. That’s unacceptable and unless it changes you can expect to see more units of government going under like the city of Detroit.

Up next: State legislators and their caucuses.

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