What kinds of tools do we need to be amazing citizens? How can we make each registered voter believe their contribution is valued and important to the processes of our republic?
The most important tool we need is information, but the information that is broadcast to us is not necessarily the information that will make us amazing citizens. We all like to feel that we are right about issues. Plenty of people are willing to make money catering to this aspect of our ego. The information we receive passively is targeted to cater to our biases. If this is your only source of information, you are likely to become more and more comfortable with your biases, and feel more and more superior to those with whom you disagree. As Dr. Seuss taught us long ago, the only person who wins by making star-bellied sneetches feel superior is the one selling the stars ("But, because they had stars, all the Star-Belly Sneetches, would brag, 'We're the best kind of Sneetch on the beaches!'"). So, to be an amazing citizen, start with a commitment to not be a star-bellied sneetch. In Accountability Citizenship, I break this down into the two steps of being appropriately positive and appropriately informed. Simply put: do your best to understand the best arguments for the other side--the side you do not agree with--of every issue. Make a habit of finding sources of information that illuminate the best arguments of the other side rather than sources that present you with a cartoon caricature of those positions.
In a perfect world, our elected representatives would help us with this key step by using their official web sites--the ones we pay for with our tax dollars--to provide real-time polling of registered voters in every congressional district. In the same way we log in to perform banking on line, registered voters could securely log in to the web sites of their representatives, record their preferences on a range of issues, and see the results in real time. The sites could serve links to sources of unbiased information, like votesmart.org and opensecrets.org, as well.
Providing an easy source of unbiased information for registered voters would increase participation. I spoke recently with a small group of voting-age people in Nevada, and many confirmed they felt they shouldn't vote because they did not know enough about issues and candidates. Now it is easy at this point to slip into Star-Belly Sneetch mode and blame these individuals for not taking steps to learn about issues and candidates. But this doesn't solve the problem. Not all of us are as able or willing to sort through conflicting and confusing candidate messaging to prepare to vote, especially when confronted with legitimately higher priorities like family and job. Not all of us have jobs that allow us equal control over our schedules. We live in an information age, and we should use available technology to make it easier for more people to be informed citizens rather than just accept the current level of confused, frustrated, and effectively disenfranchised citizens. Unfortunately, too many of our elected representatives have a vested interest in preserving the culture of star-bellied sneetches. They represent star-sellers more than they represent the people in their districts.
There are, of course, exceptions. Congressman E. Scott Rigell of Virginia, for instance, is one of a very few members who not only has made efforts to survey constituents, but also to share the results of those surveys. The "sense of the district" polls he ran were fairly low-tech, and did not provide the kind of real-time feedback that is possible today, but I thought Congressman Rigell's initiative noteworthy. Unsurprisingly, Rigell has only been in Congress a few years, and came to politics after a successful business career and service as a U.S. Marine. He is a career citizen, not a career politician.
I believe the responsibility to vote is an individual duty. That is why I called my book Accountability Citizenship. We all have to hold ourselves accountable for using the powers given us in the Constitution to shape our government. But that doesn't mean our elected officials should not be doing everything in their power to increase accessibility and participation in the democratic processes of our republic. If our representatives cannot represent all of us on this most fundamental guarantee of our Constitution, how can we trust them to represent any of us on lesser matters?