Thursday, August 13, 2009

To Springfield!

I've always written myself off as politically inept, but a recent trip to Springfield affirmed my growing suspicion that one can understand the most important things about politics without understanding politics.

We were there to advocate a tax increase that would prevent social service cuts in order to help the state make up its deficit. The house and senate and governor had been arguing back and forth about it for a long time without reaching a conclusion. By the day of our trip it was a month into the new fiscal year. One enthusiastic rally-goer carried a sign that said, “Tax Increase: So easy a caveman could do it!”

Understanding why it would take so long to set a budget requires one to ask why do politicians do what they do? Generally, the answer eludes the public and is only truly known in elite circles. The rest are left making conjectures, reading newspaper articles, and chasing legislators around the capitol building, which is what we were doing when we met Representative Lyons.

He was a tall guy with glasses and short hair, and he was headed for the elevator when a woman from our group of about ten people recognized him and called out to him. He knew what was coming. He was busy and didn't want to deal with another upset voter. He didn't want to explain why he voted no on the tax increase (which is the same as voting yes for major social service cuts). In short, he was immediately annoyed.

Aside from his generally unpleasant demeanor, I remember two things from the ensuing conversation.

First, he did explain his vote against the tax hike. He said, essentially, that he had been planning to vote yes but "got off it" when he realized the bill was not going to pass anyway. He reassured us, as other anti-tax hike representatives had, that if his vote were the deciding one, he would be there for us. If that should happen, he continued, we would all owe him thank you cards for making such a politically risky move.

In other words, he told us quite blatantly that his foremost concern is not the ideas behind legislation or even the effects of legislation on the lives of the public. What he cares most about is how his relation to certain bills affects his standing with his own constituents, and thus his chance for re-election.

Call me naive, but I found this shocking. 

Even more alarming, however, was another phrase he spoke during our five-minute interchange. When we first approached him, he prefaced his defense of his vote against the tax increase by saying, “It’s easy for you people to come and tell me where the money needs to go, but you don’t understand what it’s like to be in my situation.”

Hearing these words was like getting flicked in the eyeball. Again, I’m no expert on politics, but this made absolutely no sense. I was under the impression that it is Representative Lyons’ job to understand our situation. Isn’t that why he is called a representative? Why was he scolding a group of voters for their inability to empathize with him? Why was he telling us we would owe him something if he advocated legislation that would best serve the needs of low-income citizens? It seemed a bit backwards. 

But then again, in light of the bigger pictures of social organization and human nature, it makes perfect sense. History tells us plainly that people with power do what it takes to keep power. This equation is likely the basic rule that drives every social system, be it dictatorship, monarchy, theocracy, or democracy. Different structures allow for different means of keeping power-for example, most likely a state senator could not get away with killing his political opponent and marching his body through the streets-but at the core it's all the same.

It would be foolish to not acknowledge the blessings of living in a democratic nation. As I've worked with refugees from places like Burma, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Somalia, I've become increasingly grateful for things like peaceful transfers of power, free expression of ideas, and the ability to secure basic provisions for self and family. However, perceptiveness and a healthy degree of skepticism must accompany our enjoyment of those blessings. Otherwise, we will remain content with backwards systems.