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Wednesday, September 30, 2009

What Americans Want: Responsibility and Accountability

This past Sunday the Los Angeles Times had an excellent editorial by Frank Luntz. Luntz is a pollster and political consultant who specializes in language in politics. From December 2008 through April 2009 he interviewed 6,400 Americans, ran focus groups and listened to Americans. His most basic conclusion is that Americans are angry, he uses Howard Beale as the personification of our nation. You remember Beale, the news anchor who slowly loses it, finally screaming in his rumpled trench coat "I'm mad as hell and not going to take it anymore!"

It became a rallying cry for some and a punch line for others. Iconic enough that today it still resonates over thirty years later. I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take it anymore.

This could be the clarion call for the summer 2009 as Americans took to townhalls and Tea Parties expressing their dismay and anger over a government, or governments, that were not listening to them. Luntz finds that much of the anger was less about particular issues than it was about two factors. He states, "Digging still deeper, my research suggests that we can dial back American anger if we begin to fix complaints: the lack of accountability and the lack of respect in our dealings with each other."

To the second point, it is very hard to have respectful dealings with someone who is accusing you, assigning an agenda to you, or saying your are manipulated by others--basically saying you are not personally responsible for your own thoughts, words and actions.

To the first point, accountability in our system of governance is very much lacking. Sure we have elections every two years for Members of the House and six years for Senators, locally public officials are on four or six year election cycles. But even elections are not processes of accountability. Citizens rant and rave and shake their fingers, and elected representatives just don't listen and don't need to because the majority of their citizens will march into the voting booth and re-elect an incumbent almost every time. In California our system is so gerrymandered that our Assembly and Senate have crafted budget after budget for a decade that has doubled the size of government and led to our state's finances crashing this year taking with it billions of dollars from local school districts. In 2010 do you think there will be any accountability at the ballot box? Everyone not termed out will be re-elected, most by a landslide. And guess what will happen next year to our budget? And the year after?

Thankfully not every state is gerrymandered along party lines with safe seats. Some, not a lot but some, members of the House and Senate will face some stiff opposition in 2010. These are the politicians who are more likely to be listening to their constituents and voters. For the rest the only listening they are doing is to the cash register singing out who is making what donations to their campaign war chests. Want proof? Go to and look up any member of Congress and see who their donors are. Look up the chairs of committees and see who is pouring money into the coffers of those in charge. Look up President Obama and see the donations from Wall Street then look at his appointments to cabinet and czar positions. Everyone has conflicts of interest and there is no accountability.

In Luntz' editorial he had some very positive nuggets. First, 88% of us "believe in the adage 'live free or die.'" We believe in our freedom and cherish it for ourselves and our children. Even more encouraging for me is that his research has shown that when given a list of "social and cultural challenges facing America, the highest priority is 'restoring personal responsibility." This flies in the face of government in California where Sacramento is busy every year legislatin away personal responsibility.

Americans are tired of being told victims are every where when many of the victims are in circumstances of their own doing. Americans are tired of being told they must have a "social repsonsibility" that over rides our own personal repsonsibility. Americans want that fat kid to eat better and exercise more instead of having to pay a higher tax for a Diet Pepsi and not be able to buy food they enjoy to eat--in moderation and in balance.

There has been much handwringing and finger pointing and labelling about the townhall meetings and Tea Parties this summer. I see and hear pundits and leaders accusing the crowds of being bussed in by interest groups. I see and hear "experts" saying the crowds represent just a small portion of America "whipped into a frenzy" by extremists. I see and hear ordinary Americans asking their politicians to read a bill before they vote on it, to answer specific questions regarding spending and future deficits. I see and hear working men and women wondering why they are being dismissed and ignored.

I am only forty-seven. The protest marches for Civil Rights and against Vietnam were over before I finished fifth or sixth grade. During my conscious observation of America, our culture, our politics, our nation as a people, I have never seen such rancor and discontent expressed by such a wide swath of Americans to their government. And I think it is great. I think it is great the Americans are waking up to their personal responsibility as citizens to express their feelings, their desires and their thoughts to their elected representatives. I think it is great that Americans are letting their elected representatives know that elections are where accountability is had and they are willing to decide based upon whether their representatives listen to them, the voters, or the lobbyists waiting to hold a fundraiser for them back in Washington.

Yes America is angry. Good. Maybe out of this anger we will begin to hold ourselves and our neighbors more accoutable for personal decisions and actions. Maybe out of this anger we will begin to hold our public officials more accountable, and sooner, for their actions and behavior. Maybe out of this anger we will see a paradigm shift from voting for who ever has the most glossy postcards in our mailbox and has the most integrity on their record. Maybe out of this anger we will begin to vote for the name on the left side of the ballot and not the letter inside the parenthesis to the right of the name.

We are given the power and ability to make choices. With that power and ability comes the responsibility of the consequences for the choices we make. As a society and culture we must stop the cycle where the government minimizes consequences for bad decisions and allows Americans to abdicate their responsibility and avoid accountability. We need to start this cycle by ensuring our elected and public officials know that they are our leaders, as such they must show us that they are personally responsible and accountable for their actions, and inactions.

Please read Frank Luntz' editorial. Be responsible. Be accountable.

Link to Frank Luntz' editorial

Link to Open Secrets site showing political donations to Federally elected officials and by donors.


Bob Schilling said...

This sounds like a long discourse to explain what it's like to lose an election -- actually, two elections in a row. The politicians you accuse of not listening to you are in fact listening to someone else -- and there are enough of them to carry the electoral day. Just because they're not listening to YOU doesn't mean they're not listening.

The Republican Party, which claims to represent conservatives in this country, has gone so far astray that they're hard to recognize anymore. Who would have thought that people like Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh would be major voices among Republicans? Who would have thought that Republicans would embrace the rantings of those who say the President wasn't born in the United States? Or that they would subscribe to the crazy and irresponsible rhetoric of Death Panels? What's happened to all of them? As long as conservatives and Republicans insist on taking such positions, they should not wonder that no one is listening. It's not that people can't hear you. They're being polite and hoping you'll recover your senses.

I'm all for accountability. It's a fine quality to cultivate. On the other hand, I don't feel accountable for the Wall Street traders who ran high-risk games with other people's money. And I certainly don't feel accountable for the Republican appointees who gutted the financial regulations that had protected us before the Bush Administration. I can honestly say I didn't vote for any of them.

Republicans and other conservatives will find a more receptive audience when -- and only when -- they stop their angry calls for the "destruction" (do they really mean that?) of the Obama Administration and start offering competitive solutions to national problems. This might even include the heresy of agreeing with Democrats when they have good ideas.

Until then, well, I lived as a Democrat through the Reagan years. It wasn't fun, but it wasn't fatal. I'll be happy to offer a sympathetic ear to the frustrated.

Dennis C Smith said...

Bob: Check out the polls, all of them not just CNN or NYT. You are appear to be falling into the beliefs that the MSM and your party leadership would like you fall into. The discontent is not confined to a microscopic group of far right wing folks with loud voices. Those of us who are in disagreement with much of what is coming out of Washington, and now and previously, do so because we understand the reprecussions to our future. I don't listen to Rush or Beck so they certainly don't speak for me, nor most Americans or Republicans--none that I know anyway.