By Thomas H. Little, Ph.D. and SLLF Director of Curriculum Development and Research
Governments, especially their legislative branches, seem to have lost the respect of the voters they are elected to represent. A good friend describes the support of the United States Congress as being similar to AT&T’s “Friends and Family Plan” – the only people who approve of them (around 12 percent of people surveyed) are friends and family members. Limited polling finds similar approval ratings for state legislatures around the country. We often joke that the only people less popular than politicians are televangelists and used car salesmen. Such numbers might be funny if they were not so serious. At what point will disgruntled voters stop following the laws passed by people they do not respect? This is one explanation for a reality television star with no political experience defeating 16 experienced politicians for the Republican nomination for President in 2016 and for “political experience” being a liability rather than an asset when running for office.
In offering advice as to how today’s legislators might regain some of the public’s trust as we approach the 240th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, I thought it might be interesting to turn to our venerable founding fathers. As we look back at their decision to declare our nation’s independence, are there lessons that modern day legislative leaders might glean to help them break the gridlock that defines politics today and help to regain the trust of the governed? Let’s see what we can learn.
Do Something. Members of the Second Continental Congress were faced with a monumental challenge: address a growing frustration in the colonies regarding their treatment by the Government in England. Significant action would likely bring war and endanger their fortunes and their lives. Inaction might anger many of the 3 million colonists who had come to the new land in order to escape the kind of oppression they were feeling from the Crown. Having spent the last two years trying to reach a compromise with Great Britain, the delegates really had three options: do nothing, declare independence or seek a compromise. After some efforts to seek compromise, the delegates chose to seek independence. They chose to act. Legislators of today seem unable to act whether it is the result of partisan gridlock, fear of losing an election, or a belief that government cannot solve the particular problem. Voters look to their government to solve policy problems. Legislators must accept that responsibility and act for the good (and respect) of the people.
Take Advantage of the Skills of Everyone. No one had more passion for independence than Massachusetts’ John Adams and all agreed he was among the best orators in the body. However, the committee of five designated to draft the Declaration of Independence that, despite his many gifts, Adams should not be chosen to write the document – that should go to Virginian Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson had little of the passion for freedom that drove Adams or Franklin, but he was well-read and would bring an intellectual gravitas (and political gravitas as a Virginian) to the task. All recognized that his skills made him the best person for the job. In today’s legislature, too many legislators are recognized and given authority not for their skills, but for their partisanship, ideological stances or seniority, often leaving very good people and ideas on the sidelines.
Go Big or … At Least Try. While grade school history and idealized paintings portray the Second Continental Congress as unified in its opposition to King George and Mother England, this was not actually the case. Many colonists, including delegates to the convention, were Tories, supportive of the Crown. Indeed, the “resolution of independence” was delayed several weeks as advocates for independence struggled to gain a majority. Private letters and public documents from the 1700s reveal that there were many delegates who wanted to remain a colony and strive for compromise with the King. However, as the results indicate, most felt that such measures were mere band aids and that nothing short of revolution would suffice. It appears that many legislatures of today have lost the ability (or desire) to “think big,” settling for incremental change and tinkering at the margins. Sometimes big challenges require big solutions. Big solutions may not always be possible (or even desirable), but unless there is an effort to achieve them, they will never happen.
Write Your Name Big. Anyone who looks at a copy of the Declaration of Independence is immediately struck by the signature of John Hancock (which is why, to this day, when we ask someone to sign a document, we often say “put your John Hancock right there”). His is first – because he was President of the Convention – and larger than the rest. It was reported that upon affixing his signature, Hancock remarked that he wanted it big enough that King George could “see it without his specs.” Despite the fact that it might mean the loss of his significant wealth and perhaps his life, Hancock was proud of what he had done. Legislation today is often passed (or defeated) behind the scenes, on procedural votes or using legislative maneuvers that make it difficult to know what happened or who is responsible. These actions frustrate the voters and makes it hard to hold policy makers responsible. Taking responsibility is a cornerstone of democracy and if you are afraid to take credit (or blame) for your action, perhaps you shouldn’t take that action.
Understand and Accept the Consequences of Your Actions. Those who affixed their names to the Declaration of Independence did not take their actions lightly. They couldn’t. What they were doing was considered an act of treason by the Crown, punishable by death. As noted in the Declaration, delegates pledged “our Lives, our Fortunes and our Sacred Honor.” If the colonies lost the war, they would surely be hanged as traitors. Further, they knew that the consequences for the colonies were significant – this vote would in all likelihood lead to war with the greatest military machine the world had ever seen. Policymakers of today don’t face death for their actions or even the loss of livelihoods and those votes will seldom result in war. However, their actions do significantly impact the lives of the hundreds of thousands or millions of citizens of their states. Too many laws are passed for partisan or ideological reasons, giving little thought to the real consequences those decisions will have on the lives of the constituents legislators are elected to serve.
Were the authors of the Declaration of Independence perfect? Of course not. Did they represent all views evenly and fairly? Absent women and African Americans, of course not. However, in light of what they knew and what they had to do, they acted decisively, effectively, knowingly and taking full responsibility for their actions and the consequences that would follow. Leaders of today would do well to follow their example.