Observing US:
A column about America,
by Marylaine Block
originally published by
Fox News Online, 1998-2000

#41, July 4, 1999


by Marylaine Block

This fourth of July, it might be a nice idea to remind ourselves what it is we're celebrating. Summer, of course, grilled bratwurst and hamburgers, softball and frisbee, sunshine and swimming pools, family and friends, sparklers and fireworks spattering the sky.

But it's also a good time to re-read the document that started it all, the Declaration of Independence, and ask ourselves if we have achieved what our founding fathers fought King George to get.

The Declaration states that governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed.

But not all that many people could consent back then -- only white men with property could vote. Since then we've passed the 14th amendment, giving the vote to former slaves, and with the Voting Rights Act of 1964, we reaffirmed and ensured those voting rights which had been eroded by intimidation and state laws. In 1922 women got the right to vote, and in 1972, so did 18-year-olds. The Motor Voter law has made it easier for people to register to vote. Now, virtually all adult American citizens can give consent to our laws.

We just don't bother to.

In November, 1998, when many of us were seriously upset with our government, only 36 percent of us voted. In 1996 we could, if we wanted to, have thrown a president out after one term, as is our recent custom. But only 49 percent of us voted.

Nonetheless, any American adult who cares about consenting can and does. And among the ones who didn't, 79 percent of them said that they were satisfied with the results of the 1998 elections.

At the same time, it's also clear that the people we elect to represent us often pay no attention to our wishes. Significant majorities of Americans have repeatedly asked for stronger regulation of guns. Significant majorities of us wanted Congress to censure Clinton, not impeach him. By a 62 to 29 percent margin we wanted Congress to regulate the tobacco industry Overwhelmingly we have indicated that we want government regulation of HMOs, and that we want to use any budget surplus to protect Social Security and Medicare.

And still, like King George, they have "refused…assent to laws the most wholesome and necessary for the public good."

Why do we let them get away with ignoring us?

Probably because most of us don't pay that much attention. In a Pew Research Center poll just before the elections in 1998, only 26 percent of the voters said they followed news about the election campaign closely. In June, 1998, 36 percent said that they follow what's going on in government and public affairs "most of the time." We are simply more interested in our private lives than our public life.

It's almost as if we have achieved the ideal Jeffersonian government that doesn't do that much. It doesn't seem to affect our real lives very much even when we don't like what it's doing, so most of us feel free to let it drift along on automatic pilot until we get good and mad. As the Declaration says, "mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed."

When government won't do what we want, we just do an end run around it, using initiatives, state and city governments and the courts -- if Congress won't regulate tobacco companies or gunmakers, we can always sue them.

But when we really care about fixing things, we do it ourselves -- we "Think globally, act locally." Gallup says that in 1995, 49 percent of us volunteered, and of those, 85% were working on serious social problems. In 1992, thousands of Americans, many of whom had never voted, volunteered to work for Ross Perot's Reform Party. When we think we can make a difference, we act.

This 4th of July, pause to reflect. Is what we've gained worth the sacrifices of men who pledged "their lives, their fortunes and their sacred honor"? And if not, maybe we should start watching our government more closely. Perhaps we should start demanding that they pay attention to us, and that they truly get the consent of the governed.

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