This article was featured in the Daily Post Athenian newspaper.
It’s said that Ben Franklin was once asked what type of government the Constitutional Convention had produced. His reply was that it was “A Republic, if you can keep it.”
If we can keep it? That seems to be the question of the day. Governments, by their very nature, seem to accrue power as they age, and the United States is pushing 250 years! If power naturally concentrates with time, how can any people ever hope to stay free indefinitely? The answer, Thomas Jefferson told us, is “eternal vigilance”.
Yes, freedom takes work and sacrifice. A lot of it. We often make the mistake of assuming that most Revolutionary War era Americans were raring to grab their musket and give the British what-for. Unfortunately, this wasn’t the case. While many were sacrificing their very lives, many of their neighbors were going about their business. They would have offered a litany of excuses that should sound very familiar to those of us in contemporary America.
They would have said things like:
“I have to tend my crops in the field” (I’m too busy with my own life to be bothered with these bigger issues).
“It sounds like that General Washington guy has it handled” (I’ll happily reap the benefits of the hard work these other people are doing).
“I can’t be involved because it might affect my business” (I can’t be involved because it might affect my business).
Our situation is no different, besides the fact that our obligations as citizens take a different form. Our forefathers had to shed their blood to carve out the kind of nation that Lincoln would later describe as “…of the people, by the people, for the people…”. Instead of shedding our blood, we can protect our liberty by simply participating in the process. More than any other people group in the world, we can influence how we’re governed.
Unfortunately, we seem to have confused the "right-to-participate-in-government" with the "right-to-just-enjoy-all-of-our-rights". Living as free people in a free republic doesn’t mean that we simply get to enjoy the fruits of liberty without any obligation. I’m not saying that our rights come from government or any other such nonsense. They come from Almighty God. But the reality of the world we live in is that effort is required to keep tyrants from stealing those God-given rights.
The system of government we employ gives the best chance of a people remaining free, but it requires vigilance and participation by its citizens. That vigilance is sadly lacking today. Most of us can rattle off a plethora of stats about our preferred sports team. We can describe all the latest exploits of our favorite reality star. But how many can name even half of the Supreme Court Justices who make decisions that affect our lives. How many of us even know who our elected officials are? We’ll rearrange a schedule to catch a basketball game, but when is the last time we’ve been to a local school board or county commission meeting. For most of our generation, government is a by-the-way thing that we rarely give any serious thought to.
The founders realized that power was a dangerous thing. If they could have created a system where a concentration of power simply didn’t exist, they would have. But the world doesn’t work that way. Government is necessary. Absent some concentration of power, life becomes a matter of might-makes-right. Knowing that they couldn’t avoid the issues of power altogether, they chose to vest that power in the people themselves. That’s the whole point of elections; it’s the whole point of democracy.
When the general public refuses to participate in government, they’re assuring that the power of the government isn’t held by the people themselves, but by a select few who happen to be in positions of authority. Do you feel like your town is run by the local “good ole boys”? It’s probably because the town lets them run it. Somewhere along the line, the people gave up their rightful power. Do you think your state is run by special interests? It’s because the special interests are speaking louder than the people (or because the people simply aren’t speaking at all).
When a free people refuse to participate in their own governance, it doesn’t make the danger of centralized power disappear. It creates a vacuum that power-hungry individuals are more than happy to step into.
This concept is true in many ways. It applies when a select few always hold office, because regular folks won’t put their name on the ballot. It applies when government officials aren’t held accountable, because the average citizen won’t show up to express their concerns at a school board or commission meeting. It applies when scores of citizens scream and shout on social media but won’t give up a Saturday morning to peacefully protest something outrageous the government has done. The governmental system in the United States was meant to be not only for the people, but by the people. When citizens refuse to participate, it creates a vacuum of power that’s filled by people who use governmental power for their own ends.
APATHY IS NOT AN OPTION
The system of government our nation employs intentionally involves the people. Democracy operates on an underlying assumption that the people will be involved in their own governance. The decision to not participate has dire consequences. If a citizen doesn’t fulfill their duty to participate in their own governance, they contribute to the aforementioned vacuum.
WHAT TO DO
The best way to prevent corruption and abuse in government is, quite simply, an active citizenry. Elected officials are supposed to be accountable to their constituents. That’s why they are, well, elected. Every single citizen can participate in government by making their elected officials aware of their concerns. Most local governing bodies (such as school boards, city councils and county commissions) also provide time at their meetings for citizens to speak. Finally, there’s always The Constitution. The very first amendment to our country’s founding document guarantees the right of each person to speak up about their concerns. If they want to do that in a very public manner (such as a peaceful demonstration), they’re allowed to do so.
Finally, there are elections. Elections are the greatest check upon government. If you think you don’t know enough about government to run for office, you’re probably the perfect candidate. Most governments employ full time professionals to run day-to-day operations. Elected officials are the “of the people, by the people” part of the government. They are there to ensure that ordinary citizens are still in charge of the government. If ordinary people who want the best for their community don’t run, there will always be someone willing to step into the vacuum for the wrong reason.
Our government was designed with the understanding that each citizen has a duty to participate in it. When we see something going wrong, we have an obligation to do something about it, in the same way we’d have an obligation to intervene if we saw someone being robbed on the side of the road. When good people refuse to be involved in their government, it leaves the door wide open to abuse. It’s the best way to guarantee tyranny and lose our Republic.