“We the People …” is perhaps the most powerful opening clause ever uttered on this planet. Yet how many of “We,” really take to heart what those three words mean on a personal level? When it comes to the state of civic participation in the United States today, to paraphrase Jimmy Buffett perhaps, “We are the citizens, our forefathers warned us about.”
I write not about voter participation. Political scientists have been arguing about the true levels of voter participation for decades. If they can’t agree, who am I to say? What I am talking about is how so many of us today feel disconnected from our government. "Dysfunctional Congress," "polarization," "gridlock" are terms shouting from the daily headlines. I’ve come to the opinion that part of the problem is the way that so many of us habitually portray our relationship with our government through language that is disconnected.
Those politicians, that Congress, “if they would only …” The pundits, pols, lobbyists and those corporate interests; Argh! It’s “all their fault.”
What about “We the People?” When do we take personal responsibility for the government that we continually create and in whose name elected officials are duty bound to act? How do we escape responsibility? I think a big part of this is the language that we use.
The Constitution of the Unites States of America is not written with personal distance. The preamble speaks not from the second or third-person. “We the people of the United States,” is a statement in the first person plural. The institutions it creates are therefore personal to the authors and to those of us who claim the “the Blessings of Liberty” bestowed by the document.
I hear a lot about original intent. How about we worry less over arguments about the original intent of the Framers and instead emulate their relationship to our government “We” are the Congress. We are the Executive. We are the Judiciary. When “they” fail, it is we who fail.
When we speak about the institutions of our government in anything but personal terms, we betray the fundamentals upon which our government was founded.
The Constitution is a contract. It is a contract not between a people and their government. It is a contract between people which generates a government.
The contract generates government not only once; part of the key ingenuity is that from ratification the Constitution set in motion a process of continual regeneration. We may have valid arguments about the pace of that change. It may well be that processes set up during the 17th century are failing to keep pace in the contemporary age. However change is possible because our national contract contains provisions that all but one feature, that of equal apportionment, are open to amendment.
By understanding the document and interpreting the institutions created by the agreement we the people struck, in anything but the first person, we allow ourselves to disassociate from “our” outcomes. Changing our language and talking about our government in the way that the Framers did will change much. Getting there will involve a process of personal acceptance.
In such a process, a twelve step program, “Admitting,” is the first step. I therefore admit to my guilt. Like so many I am busy earning a living, saving for children’s education, hopefully preparing that someday I may retire and many other activities that consume my time. Little time is left to truly understand the complex issues facing our country today. I have a hard enough time keeping track and understanding the many issues facing my small community. I’ve missed many a town meeting and at other times felt embarrassed to be so unprepared to understand the issues. Then there’s my state government and its complexity. The compendium of problems faced by Washington lay even more distant. It is often overwhelming.
That being said, at least perhaps I can begin to take responsibility for my government if I change my language. If I adopt language that doesn’t give me a pass, maybe then I can begin on the path to greater personal accountability for the direction of our country. Adopting a language that does not allow me to disassociate from my government’s actions and outcomes will remove my built-in deniability and force me to confront the things that I might be able to change. Personalizing my relationship our government may hold personal risk.
What will happen when I leave behind the cognitive dissonance of third-party speech? Time will tell. Whatever the results, the best I can do is to aspire to the relationship that our Founding Fathers and their words had to our government. For them government was so personal as to be an issue of life and death. It was Benjamin Franklin who famously said at the signing of the Declaration of Independence, “We must all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately.”
So I shall begin my journey to do my part, “to form a more perfect Union,” by changing my language about my government. I will make our relationship more personal.
Eleven more steps and who knows what types of progress towards improved, “general Welfare,” may be possible. If you will join me perhaps we can each take on a small chunk of the problems facing our nation and the multiplicative power of the masses may crowd source solutions to our most vexing challenges.
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Guy W. Clinch