Which is more important in government – protecting individual rights or working for the common good? When I ask my civics and government students that question, the right answer is that it depends on the context.
Yet, when I read the newspaper, I see that the National Rifle Association has its rights (desires) protected at the expense of the supermajority of the American voters. When I look at the actions of the Washington state Legislature, I also see that protecting the self-interest of the legislators comes before protecting the rights of the citizens to know what our representatives are doing behind closed doors. This “right to know” is based on the Public Records Act which our legislature passed into law.
When I see that the Legislature wants to give back to the voters some of the surplus from taxes as a result of a booming economy instead of paying off the state’s increasing debt load, I see “politics as usual” at work.
In all these cases, protecting the interests of the elected representatives comes before either individual rights or the common good.
Time and again, after some bloody massacre of school children as in Parkland, Florida, or Sandy Hook Elementary in Connecticut, or innocent adults in some insane shooting incident like the bloodbath in Las Vegas, common sense screams that gun rights need to be curbed. Why do we allow large, 30-round clips on rifles? Why do we allow the sale of military-grade, semi-automatic machine guns like the AR-15? Why do we permit the sale of bump stocks that increase the lethality of rifles? Why can’t guns be taken from the mentally ill?
The answer is that the NRA has more power and voice in Washington, D.C., than the voters. And why is that? The NRA has the resources to donate money to campaigns for members of Congress. The NRA can also support opponents of those representatives who do not toe the line, forcing them out of office. Our national and state representatives are more afraid of the NRA than they are of their constituents. The NRA is a bully and elected members of the U.S. government kowtow to its power and influence.
On a more local level, the Washington State Legislature finally could agree to something. They were told by a judge they had to obey the Public Records Act like every other elected body in the state. Democrats and Republicans got together and agreed that they wanted to keep their activities secret. They voted with a veto-proof majority to protect their right to keep the machinations of their decisions from the prying eyes of the press and the public. The bill that was just passed and sent on to the governor drips with hypocrisy and self-interest.
This is an election year. Property taxes will rise substantially in 2018 due to the McCleary decision to fully fund schools. Rather than risk the wrath of voters, the Legislature is planning to return $1 billion of the surplus revenue from a booming economy to soften the blow. At first blush, this seems like a sensible thing to do. Unfortunately for his colleagues, State Treasurer Duane Davidson threw a monkey wrench into the political machine by reminding the Legislature that they have been increasing debt at an ever-growing rate. The state has accumulated $21 billion in the red. We are the sixth-most indebted state based on the number of residents.
During boom times, wise financial management dictates paying down the debt to prepare for the inevitable troughs to come. Again, the Legislature’s priority is serving self-interest in order to get reelected in November, rather than acting in the best interests of their constituents.
When I teach my civics and government students about our Constitution and representative democracy, I usually praise our system, especially when contrasted with the dictatorial governments of China, Vietnam or Kazakhstan, where most of my students come from. I’m also quick to point out our flaws and the ones I have noted above are examples of America’s warts and weaknesses. Our only redeeming factor is that we also have a free press that can be used to challenge and highlight the peccadillos of our elected representatives.
Good government only comes with diligent and vigilant voters who can read between the lines in the news and sniff out the smell of self-interest over either the common good or the individual rights of our citizens.
Nobody said representative democracy was easy.