January 12, 2023
Utah’s 2023 legislative session is about to begin, on the heels of the fifth-longest race for speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives in the history of that legislative body. The latter has generated lament from some about the decline of our democracy. And soon, the policy outcomes of the legislative session will lead some to passionately criticize how well lawmakers represent Utah voters.
Sounds like the perfect time to remind ourselves that each of us is responsible for both.
In our democracy, our republic, the political fact is that we are the cause of our elected representatives. Some people reject this idea as it relates to themselves, but our personal beliefs do not change the facts of the matter.
The political facts of life in a democracy reflect the realities and responsibilities of life in a republic, where governments derive their powers from the people, as our federal Constitution and our Declaration of Independence make clear. The difficulty of taking this fact seriously and accepting personal responsibility for the political and policy outcomes of a democratic republic is part of the reason why authoritarian governments (sometimes decorated by the trappings of democracy, such as elections) are more common – especially historically – than healthy democratic republics.
The fact that in the United States of America and the State of Utah political power resides first and foremost with us brings the hope and promise of the blessings of freedom and equality. It also brings the responsibility of governing ourselves.
Our culpability in the policies and decisions of our representatives is found in the extent and depth to which we: (1) organize ourselves and participate in democratic institutions (elections) and republican processes (legislative policymaking), and (2) cultivate the civic knowledge, character and virtue that makes organizing constructively influential and participation effectively persuasive.
If you voted for the men and women currently in power, you have a clear responsibility for them being there. If you voted for their electoral opponents who lost the election (or if you didn’t vote at all), the election outcome reflects in part a failure to organize and advocate effectively enough to defeat those who won. In either case, the decisions made during the 2023 Utah legislative session become a shared responsibility among every eligible Utah voter.
Partisan primaries and gerrymandering do not negate our democratic responsibilities. The 2016 election of Donald Trump and subsequent congressional elections have shown how our choices as voters swing the political pendulum and scramble electoral coalitions in ways that can overcome the best-laid partisan plans of politicians. If the pendulum hasn’t yet swung enough to overcome forces generated by partisan primaries and gerrymandering, our choices as voters have something to do with that.
But there is great optimism to be found in the facts of democratic life. America “is the greatest idea the world has ever had, but … it’s just being written and far from recorded,” as Bono optimistically stated in a recent interview with Stephen Colbert about Bono’s new book. “The people in this generation … can write what America is.” The choices you and I make will write the song of what our nation and state become.
If we properly build up our civic knowledge, character and virtue; if we effectively organize and participate in democratic elections and republican policymaking, we can ensure that the songs of America and Utah will harmonize with our dreams. If things go in a different direction, the accountability lies with us.
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