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How to be an American Citizen

The relationship between the represented and the representative.

Lauren A. Gideon

There is a lot of confusion these days (and dare I make us all nauseous and use the word “misinformation” ) drowning the American Citizen. We don’t always know what is going on, but even more than that we haven’t been trained in what to do about it. We don’t know what to do, how to do it, where to do it, when to do it, why to do it, or to what extent. The battle cry of our generation is “Just DO something!”. If that doesn’t make you snicker a wee bit, this installment might be for you.

We live in a republic, which means we have a representative form of government. Most often though, the United States is falsely described as a democracy. This distinction could fill up this entire paper so instead I will summarize. In both systems, the ultimate power is held in the hands of the voter. In a direct democracy however, the voter would literally vote on every issue. There is no assurance that what the voter votes for is moral or just, it is truly an expedient representation of the will of the people. Thomas Jefferson who initially was endeared to this style of governance was disenchanted by it over the course of his service as Governor of Virginia. While unverified, he is credited with saying, "Democracy is nothing more than mob rule, where 51% of the people may take away the rights of the other 49%.” So while mob rule is expedient, and gives ALL the “power to the people” ALL of the time; it can potentially be very dangerous, especially if you consider the unbridled mob-like mentality of the past several years on ALL sides of the political arena.

A republic is still organized with the voter/citizen as the highest authority, however a republic is not nearly as efficient or expedient. Our power is vested in those whom we choose to represent us. We vet, we interrogate, we debate, and then we select. Our selection is our seal that the individual we’ve chosen is the best person for the job that we could find within the population that is being represented by this office. This process is THE exercise of the citizen’s authority in the framework of a republic. This description is by no means a marginalization of the citizen’s role, but in the age of “Just DO something” it’s important to first define what we are supposed to be doing. The exercise of this role is clearly much more complex than scribbling in an oval with ink a few times a year (much less every 4 years!).

Ideally, how should you select a representative? Find someone that has sufficient knowledge, understanding of that knowledge, and wisdom in application of that knowledge. Another way of articulating qualifications: do they possess true principles, building on those can they reason well, and lastly, could they strategically apply those principles to any potential circumstance. That is how we ought to select our representative.

Our representative then represents us in the office, exercising authority on our behalf as that is what we chose our representative to do. There are two seasons to this process; first selection (which is called a primary and general election), and then the term of that representative in which he/she does the representing. During this term we ought to support and encourage the chosen candidate whom the majority thought was best suited for the role. Due to the fact that we helped select this representative we naturally have an established relationship that we ought to steward during the term. Support means we take into account the principles we based our decision on and they become mechanisms of conversation, and sometimes persuasion. We winsomely advocate for the application of these principles on issues based on the issue’s merits of goodness, justice and wisdom (or lack thereof). We thereby partner with those representing us.

Terms have different lengths but they all have limits. Like all healthy assignments, there are seasons of assessing, or “performance reviews” if you will. Who performs the reviews you ask? The voters. Can we all agree that there are qualifications for the heavy responsibility of giving performance reviews? You would need to know the standard or “ideal”, you would need to know the merits on which the representative was selected in the first place, and you would also need to be engaged enough— not only to know what transpired during the term but WHY. The assessment is a layered puzzle that will take more than a yard sign, a piece of literature, or a social media post to perform. But as the sovereign in this great nation, “We, the people” have this high calling and responsibility to rule our nation well and need to hold ourselves accountable individually first to the measure that this office deserves.

Juxtapose this calm, calculated, time consuming, discipline requiring paradigm to the suggested playbook of our age. Verbs enlisted to the cause include; yell, scream, e-blast, force, fight, rally, bully, protest and “make your voices heard”. If you don’t join the mob, this will mean to others that you aren’t yet awake enough. If the wicked have succeeded in this vein, isn’t it time we “borrow a page from their playbook”? And if your representative doesn’t bow to your beck and call, he’s "forgotten who he works for”. After all “We the people” will make our demands and if enough people want something, a representative ought to be bound to give it to them. And if our representative doesn’t, we choose vindication over virtue.

But isn’t their playbook more effective? If the stakes are high (as the last commentator I listened to told me they were) ought we to use the playbook most effective to the task? Yes and no. I am not confident that we have a modern example of a diligent, virtuous approach to politics by which to form a fair comparison. Perhaps there still is wisdom in the path of diligence and, to a degree, we can generally anticipate that we will reap the seeds we sow. Additionally, the wicked have always prospered and they always will, until the end of this age. So to take a wicked page from the wicked book to achieve a moral end is inconsistent and incompatible. Not only that, but: is it just those “other” people who are tempted to be tiny tyrants? Tyranny is all around us. If dominance is how the team moves the football down the field would they then give up their tyrannical ways once they reach the end zone? Victory would mean nothing less than a regime change where one tribe steals the scepter to wield how they see fit. To quote my colleague, “Tyranny is awful except for my tyranny… which is ok.”

To get back on track, I am not assuming that we will always see eye-to-eye with those who represent us, especially if we “on-ramped” into this cycle somewhere in the middle. It would be imperative that we identify what season we are currently in with each individual representative. Do some research, and then enter into relationship with these civil servants. We can get to know them; their background and their priorities. Like any new relationship, we ought to find what principles we have in common. Then, when we meet a division of opinion, we appeal on the merits of goodness, justice and wisdom. (Notice I didn’t say “how I think it should be done”) We build our reasoning on something timeless, outside of mere opinion, on some truth that both can identify. Provide authoritative sources. And then be professional! When this fails, because it will – at some point. Evaluate. What level of division is it? Is it a deal breaking disagreement? Should it be? Or is it an area of minor consequence? Review season is coming and this time you will take your role more seriously. After you have made your appeal to your representative, and once primary season is at hand, it’s time for the community to reevaluate if they (and more importantly, truth) is best represented by the current representative. This can not happen in a vacuum. The constituents must compare notes, events, circumstances, choices and actions. They must turn their attention to winsomely persuading their neighbors to vote based on what is good, just and wise. They must consolidate their voting power to find the best representative for that community.

We vet, we interrogate, we debate, and then we select because we remember that our selection is our seal that the individual we’ve chosen is the best person for the job that we could find within the population that is being represented by this office. And from the last term we realize that we will reap what we sow.

And when primary season is done, what’s done is done. And it’s back to the season of civil relationships.

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