In a 2006 interview with Christopher Lydon, novelist Philip Roth said this about the condition of political activity and leadership throughout our nation:
“There is this sense that one shares with many, many people, of great powerlessness … We feel utterly without the people who should voice your objections, who should voice your policy, who should voice your outrage, who should voice your indignation. They’re not there, and I think this increases one’s sense of despair and powerlessness, which is, ‘Is everybody a coward?’ This creates enormous despair, estrangement from your country … I think I share this feeling with others of complete powerlessness and being unrepresented. All you do is whine with your friends on the phone. You get tired of the sound of your own voice in its indignant mode.”
Roth captures how so many of us feel about our relationship to policy- and decision-making in our state and nation. Many feel alienated from the political process. Our disaffection with politics and government grows in proportion to our own silence and apathy. Too often, we fail to believe our voice matters in how things turn out in our local community, state and nation.
This disaffection expresses itself in many ways. Just over 39 percent of registered Salt Lake County voters bothered to cast their ballots in the 2007 election—a disappointing turnout that was nonetheless higher than the statewide turnout of 36 percent.
Just imagine: Barely a third of Utah residents exercised one of the most important privileges available to us as citizens in a democratic society: to choose our own governmental leaders and collectively decide important policy and legal questions.
Nationally, despite a federal administration that has propagated a disastrous war, blatant deceits, numerous violations of law and treaty obligations and heinous human rights violations, national voter turnout in the 2006 midterm election was only about 40 percent. Few people hold demonstrations on our streets and college campuses. Perhaps most dangerously, we frequently only discuss important political and social matters with those who already share our point of view.
Our collective apathy, which amounts to a frightening form of political cowardice, is not a problem that can simply be blamed on the media, or on young people. (In fact, despite the common view of the 1960s as a time of heightened political engagement, a George Mason University study has found the steepest decline in voter turnout since World War II occurred between 1968 and 1972—this even after the voting age was reduced to 18 in 1971.) Rather, the political apathy and obsequious silence seen in much of our state and nation reflect a failure in our individual lives to take responsibility for the future, to exercise needed leadership and to join in common cause with others to transform our world.
As a former elected official who has been involved in activism throughout most of my adult life, I know now, more than ever before, that power in our nation truly rests with the people. Our elected officials mostly fail to exercise leadership, generally responding to what the polls say or what their campaign contributors demand. Our elected officials need to know we care and that if they don’t make the right decisions—such as failing to stop human-rights abuses and the exacerbation of global warming—they will pay a political price. Hence, it rests upon us to organize, lead and make a positive difference by pushing our elected officials to do the right thing. The failure of leadership, from our local communities to the halls of Congress, amounts to a failure of political will among the people to actively advocate for policies and practices worthy of the ideals we share as Americans.
We all lead busy lives but even sending a letter or making a phone call can make a difference. As the late Illinois Sen. Paul Simon said, “If every member of the House and Senate had received 100 letters from people back home saying we have to do something about Rwanda when the crisis was first developing, then I think the response would have been different.”
Each of us has the responsibility to write or call our representatives, and to speak with them personally every chance we have, to communicate our views, and to attend community and local government meetings about issues that matter to us. We should organize demonstrations, taking to the streets to show our solidarity and resolve. We should also give voice to our own views and to the shared values that help define us as Americans by writing opinion pieces for newspapers and other publications. (The “Letters” section is the second most frequently read part of the newspaper.)
When we refrain from calling for change, we support the status quo. Through hope, determination and energetic, relentless activism, we can transform our world. Working together, we can create a brighter, safer, healthier future for all.
Rocky Anderson served as Salt Lake City mayor from 2000-08. While in office, he protested President George W. Bush’s 2006 visit to Salt Lake City.