Opinion: We are citizens, not consumers.
SALT LAKE CITY — I’ve been pondering something these last days since the election. Election day feels profoundly important to me, as I imagine it does to many of you, although I get as frustrated as anyone with the suffocating attack ads. In fact, those ads are part of what I’ve been thinking about. The ads, the fundraising calls, the stories, the op-eds, the endless social media posts – they all make me feel like politics has become a product I consume.
The candidate becomes the product. “Buy these cars or this furniture” becomes “Vote for my candidate and not that other bad, un-American, terrible, horrible person on the ballot.” We have become consumers of our democracy rather than citizens engaged in its very heart and function. (I am certainly not the first person to have this thought. See Citizens by Jon Alexander.)
Because we act like consumers, we stand at a distance, judgmental and opinionated, but never about our own role. We only judge the performance of the candidates, as if their role were the only one crucial to a healthy functioning of our democratic republic.
Perhaps part of why we have had decades of gridlock in Congress, why meaningful immigration reform is like a third rail, why politicians have gone so far to their corners that they need to scream, constantly, for us to hear – is because we have abdicated our role as citizens.
We are not citizens only on election day.
We are citizens when we do not allow injustice to stand without taking some kind of action. We are citizens when we share our opinions, AND ALSO when we show interest and curiosity about other people’s opinions. We are citizens when we care about the welfare of our communities, of the environment, of the children, the poor and the immigrant. We are citizens when we look at the government as part of us and not as our enemy. As Thomas Jefferson described it, “The government you elect is the government you deserve.”
By that definition, we are not very deserving right now. We continue to elect, over and over, leaders who put their own power and desires ahead of the nation’s, ahead of our own. And why do you suppose that is? Because WE put our own desires ahead of the nation’s. What other kind of people would we elect but people who mirror our own values? Me first. Everybody else second.
I hear President Kennedy’s call from the distance, as if through a fog, “Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country.” With the exception of those in the military and other more pure forms of service, when was the last time you asked what you can do for your country? I hear endless complaints about what the country is not doing for us, or at least what half of the country is doing wrong, but I never, NEVER, hear people asking what they can do to better our republic.
I believe we need to stop focusing on consumerism and begin focusing on citizenship if we want our government to change, if we want our country to change, to become, once again, a nation that is a beacon of light. We must, as Gandhi said, be the change we want to see in the world . . . and in the United States.
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