I believe in writing to my congressmen and women.
I wrote my first letter as a high school student in the 50s, inspired by a wonderful civics teacher who convinced me that my representatives in Washington really wanted to hear what I thought, that their actions were governed by the voices of the people back home. I sincerely believed that our democratic system was the responsibility of every person in our country. We selected the best person to speak for us in government and the job of this elected official was to listen to what we had to say and to do his or her best to represent us. It didn’t matter if we were rich or poor, young or old, we could all help guide our representative. Our opinions, in fact, were so important that we could even send them in telegrams at reduced rates.
My early letters were usually answered. If they weren’t written by my congressman, and they were always men back then, they at least had his signature. If he didn’t agree with me, he generally told me why he was voting the way he was. And that was fine; in a democracy one person’s views are not always going to prevail.
Later I began to get form letters. This wasn’t as satisfactory but form letters still gave me the background on my representative’s position and his vote. I pictured a tally board where the office kept track of letters for and against an issue so my representative would know the views of his constituents. And the form letters always included a time and place when my representative would be in my area if I wanted to talk to him in person.
Then, in the last decade, even the form letters have virtually dried up. I have gotten one reply in the past five years and it made so little sense that I concluded it was a reply that was meant for someone else and mistakenly sent to me. I’ve also noticed that my congressmen (and they are currently men) don’t seem to have much connection with us people anymore. They don’t keep us informed of the issues they’re interested in, we don’t know where they stand, or what they’re willing to compromise on and what they’re not. Even their voting record is hard to find. I don’t think this is how it’s supposed to work.
I still write my congressmen when the spirit moves me. They could have papered the walls with all the letters I wrote before the Iraq invasion or before the vote on the Patriot Act. But now, instead of picturing a tally board, I picture a lowly aid looking at the return address and saying to an office mate, “here’s another one from that McCarthy woman,” just before he tosses it in the trash can.
Voting is a habit and I suppose I will always do it. I’m just not convinced it counts for much anymore. And I am beginning to understand why so many people are not interested in politics. If their voice doesn’t matter, why speak up?
I still think we elect good people but something happens when they get to Washington. It’s like they become part of a secret club and the folks back home are outsiders. Is this still democracy?
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