In a week you’ll be voting for local government offices in Wisconsin. If history’s any indication, you won’t have to wait in line very long. Spring elections in Wisconsin historically have the lowest voter turnout among the regular ballot opportunities. I alternate between seeing that as an endorsement of the quality of your work (of the federal, state and local layers of government, the public trusts local government the most) and worrying that low turnout is a sickly canary warning us that the air’s getting foul in the coal mine of democracy.
I don’t like what I hear lately when people talk about the government. Too many citizens look upon government, even local government, as “them.” The people who operate government are “someone else,” not the citizens themselves. Never mind that the village president is their brother and the Public Works Director lives on the same block. This problem of perception is bad enough at the local level, but it’s worse at the state level, and it’s downright alarming at the federal level. Even elected officials use terms like “the deep state” in a disparaging reference to a far off and untouchable, immovable government.
I had this in mind as I was driving through South Central Pennsylvania recently. A certain freeway exit caught my eye and kicked loose my memory of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. At the tail end of that short speech, the President was trying to remind his fellow Americans what we’re doing here. Standing in a cemetery, surrounded by the graves of thousands of young men, Abraham Lincoln wrapped up one of the world’s most beloved speeches by calling on the crowd to resolve themselves to remember that the whole purpose is to ensure:
“That government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
Have we forgotten the meaning of those words? One-hundred and fifty-five years later is “the government” now a far-away land controlled by invisible forces, or is this still the place where we choose our government from amongst ourselves? A government “of the people and by the people,” means that our government is nobody but us.
Because “us” tends to be—well–us, it’s going to be messy sometimes. You and I will agree on which streets to pave, but we may disagree on whether a particular zoning change is good for our community. We’ll smile and laugh when we cut the ribbon for the new roundabout (okay, bad example), but then we’ll get all red-faced and loud when someone brings up that riverfront redevelopment project.
Government of the people, by the people and for the people recognizes that people are basically good, but with occasional bad moments. It’s a government that reflects our shared morality, gladly spending millions to educate someone else’s children and giving a hand to a neighbor who’s lost his job or her home. At the same time, we’ll rail against the foolishness of those new planter boxes downtown. The magic of a government selected from amongst the people themselves is that the government looks like them and acts like them, because it is them, good and bad.
Thankfully, we do not have to take up arms against one another again in order to fulfill President Lincoln’s wishes. There’s another way. We can simply vote. We can stay involved. After the election, win or lose, we can congratulate the winners, and pledge to work with them.
It’s what Abe asked us to do.