Intentionally Unreasonable: We the (broken) people, Part 1

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When you Google “government broken,” you get 210 million results – and a Google display that suggests the scope of the search broke Google.

It seems to be a universal truth in America, here in Maine and in many our of local municipalities, that the majority of voters and citizens feel government is to blame for, well, virtually everything bad, and very little good in their lives.

Do we all feel this way because it’s actually true, or because over the last decade we’ve been bombarded by billions of dollars of campaign ads, and millions of messages from our political leaders telling us so?

Recent political campaigns illustrate that almost every candidate ran on a platform variation of “the government is broken and if you elect me, I’ll fix it.”

Maine’s major-league political leaders (U.S. Sen. Angus King, U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, Gov. Paul LePage and U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud) all sang along in varying degrees to the same “government is broken” song/rant/hypnotic chant during the latest election cycle, often elbowing the others away from the microphone, much like a political group of consisting of all Art Garfunkels and not a single Paul Simon.

(Former U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe left the chorus altogether in 2012 to pursue a solo career featuring a book and speaking engagements dedicated to the subject.)

Senators, governors, state legislators, city and town elected officials are all signing the same song, from the always awkward, and frequently hypocritical, perch of righteous indignation and blatant self denial. How can every elected leader blame the entire institution of government, which is in itself is a collective of elected leaders, while always ignoring their own membership and any degree of culpability?

Well, to extend the musical metaphor, I’m here to serenade you with a different tune while simultaneously marching to a different drummer. I love our government on every level and instead of thinking it’s broken, I’m amazed and awestruck by its complexity and brilliance. From the underlying legal structure, to the massive organizational operation itself, our local, county, state and federal government is great.

From where you are reading these words, electronically or with pulp in your hands, stop for a minute and look around. Extend your vision to a one-mile radius and think about all of the elements in that range that are directly connected to the government that I love: fresh water, sewer systems, local zoning, food and drug standards, transportation, commerce, energy, communication, waste disposal and thousands of other vital things that we depend on daily for our society to function. How can we ever measure and appreciate the quality of life that we enjoy, without thanks to our government?

Do you own a car? Go sit in the drivers seat and count all of the associated elements that exist today that government played a role in mandating: lead-free fuel, safety glass, seat belts, air bags, catalytic converters, flame-retardant materials, child-safety devices, crash-standard engineering, electronics and hundreds of other things. How can we ever measure the number of lives saved over the years thanks to our government, just in this one category?

Do you work? If so, do you handle much asbestos, are you forced to work 80-hour weeks, and do you encounter many 12-year-olds slaving away in local factories? Instead, workers in the U.S. enjoy many labor laws, safety laws, Social Security, etc., that exist to the benefit of most workers. Yes, wage inequality is too prevalent in too many dimensions, all glass ceilings need to be broken, and much more progress is needed, but government continues to play the role of good, not evil, in relation to American workers.

None of these government functions or systems that are in our homes, offices, cars or communities are easy. In fact, they are all massively hard. But with any huge enterprise or groups of connected enterprises, there will always exist flaws and inefficiencies – a reality that deserves constant attention and focus to improve. But, that doesn’t mean that our government is broken. It’s just really, really big, and big things are never perfect.

So why is everyone saying that our government is “broken?” Because it’s the easiest and largest target of universal blame without any mechanism for debate, dispute or retaliation – and politicians have found it to be one of the most valuable forms of campaign currency (opiates?) accepted everywhere (local, state, federal, Democratic, Republican, etc.).

Most critically, it’s a diversion from identifying and recognizing the true culprit fueling many of our challenges: We the people. It’s your fault. It’s my fault. It’s our fault.

We are broken in regard to our active and informed civic engagement. And until we recognize and address that bitter truth, better, more qualified candidates won’t seek elected office, incompetent candidates will continue to be elected, and bad policy, bad process and bad laws will prevail on all levels, creating the illusion of a “broken government,” while the band plays on and our sad song continues.

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Steve Woods is from away, but fully here now, living in Yarmouth, working in Falmouth, traveling the world, and trying his best. His column appears every other week.

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