Posted by: justawriter | August 26, 2009

Far Afield – A good week for the democratic process

I’ve always had an interest in politics. It isn’t that I’ve ever wanted to run for public office or be one of those behind the scenes power brokers. Rather, I’ve always had an intense curiosity about how things work. Whether it was figuring out how to fix a clock that wasn’t working or why a really cool science experiment worked or how a bill becomes a law, it was pretty much all the same. I just wanted to figure out what was going on.
That curiosity led me to study science and then politics. I think it is why I enjoy the newspaper business so much. There are few other occupations that encourage you to be nosy and then pay for the privilege on top of it. It’s a good day when I can get out and talk with people on every conceivable topic from health care to barbecued chicken wings.
This week in Beulah I saw things work. The results may not please everybody or even most people, but it was good seeing things work the way they were supposed to.
Most people my age and younger will remember the ABC “Schoolhouse Rock” version of the legislative process. The tune of “I’m Just a Bill” is one of those songs that when brought to mind can take hours to banish from your thoughts. It is a good primer on our government for the pre-teen, and impressive for how much information was packed into the small amount of time those episodes ran. But I always thought there was something missing from the Schoolhouse Rock version of governing – debate and dissent.
Both were on display in Beulah this past week. They involved both our local city board and one of the leading figures in the U.S. Senate. Both episodes reflected well on the people of Mercer County as examples of how the government and the people can communicate without all the dramatics that have plagued debate elsewhere in the country.
Sen. Kent Conrad visited Beulah to talk about health care. Citizens packed the Beulah City Hall to find out what had been done to protect their homes from another flood. Both meetings covered topics central to people’s lives. At both meetings people were passionate, without being rancorous. They spoke forcefully, without raising their voices. They pointed out deficiencies in positions and policies without hurling insults and slurs.
Conrad and the City Council represented themselves well also. The senator explained about the complexity of the process he faces back in the Senate, where a well entrenched and organized minority can overrule the wishes of a large majority of country. Mayor Darrell Bjerke fielded questions for an hour, explaining the Byzantine bureaucracy of flood fighting in this country and what the city could and couldn’t do. I’m sure there were things said that neither side wanted to hear. But over the course of the two meetings, nobody was called a nazi or a socialist, no fists were raised in anger and no one said anything they would have been ashamed to tell their grandmother.
The lack of theatrics didn’t mean the proceedings didn’t lack drama. The issues discussed were profound, and the audience came prepared with razor sharp questions. Our elected representatives fielded those questions with grace.
I should add that I am not opposed to using theatrics to influence the political debate. After all, the aim of the 1963 March on Washington was not to move the hearts of senators and representatives but that of the American people. We still thrill to the words of Rev. Martin Luther King from that day when he said, “I have a dream.” Without people willing to turn out to support the most basic rights, this country might still be ruled from London.
The problem is that somewhere along the line protests became an end in themselves. They descended from being a statement of public passion to a kind of political recreation. Everyone with a gripe started showing up with their own sign and whatever message the organizers had wanted to send soon descended to “look at the ticked off goofballs” once it got filtered through the media.
Bjerke made a good point at Monday night’s council meeting. It’s not enough just to show up and say, “we’re upset.” It’s not even enough to say, “you need to do something.” Citizens have a duty, when they see something that needs to be changed, to educate themselves about the issue and the process by which it can be changed. That’s hard. It’s much easier to just demand that our elected representatives “do something.” But it is up to all of us to learn what specific things we want and who to go to in order to get what we want. If we don’t know what we want, then decision makers will have an excuse not to give us anything.
To the south side residents’ credit, they have been doing a lot of homework. Their questions were informed and to the point. To the City Council’s credit, that body had asked many of the same questions and forthrightly relayed the answers they had found. I think some eyes were opened on both sides of the council table as it became apparent how intertwined Beulah and its future are with decisions made in Stanton, Bismarck and Washington. I hope to see a long and fruitful collaboration between the City Council and the south side residents, and with all the residents of Beulah. It will be a long hard slog to solve problems as intractable as flooding and health care. If we don’t work together, nothing will change at all. Or even worse, it will change to benefit the people who were organized and our voices will be shut out. So I thank all the people who showed up at government meetings last week, not just because it makes good newspaper copy, but for doing your part to keep our officials responsive to the needs of the community.

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