A few quotes from Abraham Lincoln:
“Our government rests in public opinion. Whoever can change public opinion, can change the government, practically just so much.”
“He who molds the public sentiment…makes statutes and decisions possible or impossible to make.”
“Public opinion in this country is everything.”
It’s a lot of work to be an effective legislator in modern America whether you’re working at the state level or in Washington D.C. It requires a commitment to principle and a level of perseverance that is rare.
In 1774 John Adams was worried:
“We have not men fit for the times. We are deficient in genius, education, in travel, fortune-in everything.”
Of course he turned out to be quite wrong. Today’s state of the state here in Illinois looks bleak, and it’s easy to wonder if we can find men and women who can lead, not just get elected and reelected.
It goes without saying that Illinois state legislators deal with a lot of issues. This is the fifth largest state in the union and the last head count had us at about 12.4 million strong. But when you hear from your state representative you’d expect to hear something substantive about the big, expensive issues like health & social services spending (approximately $19 billion), and publicly funded education spending (approximately $13 billion), to name a couple.
Instead, one newsletter sent out by a suburban state rep a couple of years ago was indicative. It included articles with these headlines:
- “Police given tools to crack down on Meth labs”
- “Appealing property taxes”
- “Vehicle Registration to be Linked to Vehicle Emission Testing”
- “Stricter Penalties for Identity Theft”
- “Impersonation of police officers not tolerated”
- “Property tax relief for senior citizens”
- “Better monitoring required for sex offenders”
- “Reading encouraged during summer months”
- “Protecting nursing home residents”
These might be important issues, but a taxpayer-funded newsletter is a wasted opportunity if it doesn’t at least touch on the things that are causing the fiscal crisis and driving taxes up.
Silence on the big issues leads observers to believe legislators either don’t understand the problems, the solutions, how to advance the solutions, or that they’re fearful of offending the tax eaters.
They’d know more if the General Assembly exercised oversight. Instead, it merely meets each spring to decide where to spend more without any real discussion about the effectiveness or appropriateness of existing spending.
Only those lobbying for higher spending meet with legislators; mere taxpayers don’t. The one sided message being heard puts a lot of pressure on the legislative class to exercise judgment. In recent years, their judgment hasn’t been good.
Again, I grant that it’s a tough job. Saying “no” takes strength and a solid grounding in principle and a basic understanding of economics.
There will always be more demands than dollars. If that two-letter word (‘no’) isn’t used enough, if priorities aren’t set, it’s time to start wondering if legislators are up to the task. The solution to our fiscal woes is to limit spending. If they’re not a part of the effort to limit, then they’re a part of the problem.
We need a group of men and women who believe, like Ronald Reagan did, that the principles we espouse can carry the day.
It’s not good enough anymore to just get elected and reelected, or even be right on the issues. If you’re going to hold public office your success will no longer be measured by your length of service or how many tax eaters call you their friend.
The bar is being raised. From here on out, if a legislator isn’t using the power of their bully pulpit to move public opinion then they’re abusing that power.
Our system is not based on the notion that electing good men and women is a sufficient check on abuse of power. Nor is our system built on trust. It’s built on checks and balances. And the ultimate check is that of a frustrated citizenry. Voters may not know the details, but more and more they realize that those they’ve elected aren’t getting the job done.
Legislators must make shaping public opinion job number one. They must prioritize their time, giving most of their attention to the big issues. They must educate themselves about the problems since they can’t help fix what they don’t understand. And they must realize that if they don’t do these things, history will no longer judge them as a wonderful public servant. The days of the horse and buggy are over.
I’ll give Abe Lincoln the last word:
“With public sentiment, nothing can fail. Without it, nothing can succeed.”