Amid political bickering, shared anger at politicians
Webster’s New World Dictionary defines patriotism as loyal or zealous support of one’s country, but as the nation celebrates its 234th Fourth of July today, the nature of American politics has come to test that support for many.
Conservatives and progressives both claim to be patriots, but often are at odds with each other. The bickering and the questioning of each other’s patriotism among lawmakers has left many voters to believe that elected officials have stopped listening to the very people who put them in charge in the first place.
As a result, local, state and national groups have started efforts to address the matter, either by shining more light on governments and politicians, pushing for more restraints on campaign finance and the involvement of special-interest groups, or by simply demanding that lawmakers act more civil toward one another.
At the same time, grass-roots movements, such as the one that helped put President Barack Obama in office in 2008, or the tea party movement that has cropped up since, bring in new faces to our elected offices.
Tim Fenwick, a local organizer for a tea party group known as GJresult.com, said his movement is very much like the famous Boston Tea Party of 1773: It’s a backlash against faraway powers who didn’t seem to care about increased tax burdens on regular people.
“The tea party was formed because the politicians in Washington, D.C., weren’t listening, and there seems to be no stopping them from doing what they want,” Fenwick said. “As a result of that, the only outlet that we have is to try to elect new candidates who will listen to us. Politicians who represent political parties and political parties only, such as the ones that we have right now, they have their own agenda.”
Fenwick admits his movement is predominantly conservative. But that doesn’t mean only the Republican Party establishment need worry. Progressive lawmakers are just as much a part of the problem as conservative ones, he says.
“The voters themselves have to get together and pull us out of this mess because we cannot depend on our politicians to do this for us anymore,” Fenwick said. “These people, they’re filled with desire, and they’re going to tell their constituents, ‘We’re going to do this or that.’ Then they get back (to Washington), and things change. They realize, ‘Hey, I get free haircuts. I get a free lunch. I get free airplane rides back home. This is fun.’ We’re trying to hold politicians’ feet to the fire.”
He’s not alone.
That same sentiment has spurred Stephanie Cegielski, a former elections official in the Colorado Secretary of State’s Office who has worked for Democrats and Republicans, to start a new watchdog nonprofit group that will demand more accountability from public officials.
As several new national groups focus on accountability in government, her group, the Colorado Government Accountability Project, hopes to ensure public officials’ compliance with Colorado law and hold them accountable when they violate it.
A lawyer by training, Cegielski said movements like the tea party are only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to people’s mistrust of state and national governments.
First step in Colorado
“There’s a vast number of people out there right now who think that government isn’t really serving people, and you see that in the tea party movement and all the primaries that are going on right now,” she said. “Our goal is to try to restore some of that public trust by reinstating some of the transparency that should be there. There’s a lot of things over the last four or five years that’s gone unchecked, and that’s led to some of this distrust.”
Cegielski said Colorado voters’ approval of Amendment 41 in 2006 was a good first step, but not nearly enough to do the job. The amendment was designed to set standards of conduct in government, and it created the Colorado Independent Ethics Commission to monitor it.
Although that commission has been operating since, few people know of its existence, Cegielski said.
“Amendment 41 is pretty restrictive, but there’s a problem with it because it kind of stops short of really being an ethical code,” she said. “The only way that somebody is held accountable under Amendment 41 is if a complaint is filed, and some citizens don’t know how to take that up or are afraid to, or they don’t know it’s there.”
Doug Platt is the new communications director for the commission. Hired only six months ago, his job is to help the five-member panel take its mission to the next level: reach out to Coloradans to tell them of the panel’s role, and instruct state and local lawmakers of their obligations.
“Colorado’s one of the few states where an ethics amendment or legislation was not borne out of some major scandal, yet people still spoke to the kind of conduct they’d like to see in their government,” Platt said. “The benefit is in knowing for the citizens of the state that there is an oversight function that is politically neutral. The next evolution for us is to get out and make sure that people know we exist and what we do.”
His boss, former Rep. Matt Smith, the Grand Junction resident who is chairman of the commission, said the commission is planning a series of ethics courses for all government workers that would focus on preventing even the appearance of ethical violations.
That’s a far more useful approach than merely focusing on ethical breaches after they’ve occurred because it would improve citizens’ perception of them specifically and their governments in general, he said.
“Public officials and state and city and county workers can avoid any appearance of impropriety if they just have some understanding of what that expectation is,” Smith said. “It’s more the appearance question that catches people off guard.”
Regardless of those efforts, many state residents don’t believe it’s enough.
The crux of the problem still is with those in office, and the only way to repair that, and restore people’s patriotic sense of the nation, is to sweep them out of office, they say.
Kevin McCarney runs a small business in Grand Junction and recently became a board member of the newly formed Western Slope Conservative Alliance. Like Fenwick’s group, the alliance hopes to educate voters about candidates running for various offices and teach them the importance of learning about them on their own.
And like Fenwick, McCarney blames the electorate in general for the problem, saying voters have abdicated their responsibilities in watching government.
One way to fix it is to get rid of lawmakers’ attitude that they are right and everyone else is wrong, he said.
“I’m a great student of history, and I can tell you that this country is based on compromise. That’s how almost every document in this country was written,” McCarney said. “For whatever reason, we’ve become more rigid in our way of thinking and our way of arguing. That’s unfortunate. We’ve lost something vital, and that’s the sense of altruism.”