Last month my local town council voted to prohibit the playing of recorded messages from residents at its meetings. The disgruntled or enthusiastic can still show up and speak, of course, and they can write letters galore, but gone are the
days when you could send your voice in your stead.
I have no particular problem with the new rule. But it got me thinking. To hear elected officials tell it, one of the major headaches of public office is dealing with an often furious public. The tea party summer of 2009, this story notes, was too “traumatic”: “Gone are the packed, freewheeling town halls of the past, where voters stood up at microphones and pelted elected officials with questions on just about anything.” And even when there are meetings, says another report, congressional offices are doing their best “to conceal when and where the meetings take place.”
It’s easy to understand why politicians at all levels are so frustrated. A Florida county commissioner told me not long ago about his experience being berated in the supermarket aisle by a constituent who was angry about some vote. A friend who’s an elected official complains of being constantly targeted by well-bankrolled critics. It must get exhausting. Everybody seems to be angry. In opinion polls, respect for government institutions is at historic lows.
No doubt there are lots of complicated reasons for this collapse. I suspect, though, that the biggest is simple: By and large, we don’t trust the government and we don’t feel that we hold much influence over it.
This sense of exclusion is as old as America. If you read through the colonists’ complaints in the Declaration of Independence, few carry true revolutionary import. To understand the document’s moving spirit, skip over the self-evident rights and the list of the Crown’s many wrongs until you come to this: