With more knowledge, we can Vote Smart
Democracy is not a natural act. That is why it took so many thousands of years of human suffering to finally give it a shot. Madison, Jefferson, Adams and Washington all worried about what they were about to do. To take the power to run their lives, the power to tell them what they could and could not do and the punishments they would suffer if they did not obey -- to take that kind of awesome power over their lives and toss it out into the hands of the masses was a very chancy thing to do. They knew it and doubted its outcome.
Every other nation believed as Alexander Tytler, a Scottish historian of their time, believed. If you started with bondage that might lead to the courage of revolution, and if the revolution were successful, then liberty and great abundance would follow. But in time abundance would become greed and selfishness and that would slowly degrade into complacency. Once apathy set in, dependence would follow and lead right back to bondage.
Our generation has transformed our society into one that is riddled with extraordinary needs, causing enormous debt, both national and personal. Are we a generation unlike all others, the one that has decided to harvest all of our nation's fruit and some of its blossoms, too?
Whether you look at our enormously expensive military -- far beyond anything every dreamed of by Roosevelt or Lincoln during their trying times -- or the massive social programs we demand from Congress to ensure our well-being, there is considerable evidence that our generation has transformed the nation and reset its course precisely as Tytler suggested we would.
We want stuff, a lot of stuff, and we elect our representatives to go get it for us. In fact, you could search the entire Project Vote Smart database of almost 40,000 candidates and not find a single one winning in this election who says, "Boy, we want a lot of stuff. Elect me and I will make sure you pay for it." Nor could you find a single candidate on the other side of the ledger who says, "Boy, we aren't paying for all of this stuff. Elect me and I will slash your military protections and social programs." We require our candidates to manipulate us.
Candidates are not going to deal with these problems. It simply isn't possible for a member of Congress to see a problem when his or her next contribution depends upon not seeing it. They have discovered that it is far easier and more economical to move us emotionally instead of intellectually. In a 30-second ad they can move our passions, our hatred, our prejudices and fears, but they cannot move us intellectually on an issue facing society and the options for dealing with it, so they no longer even try.
Resolution of this falls to us, the people. I do know the Founders worried that one day we would become so detached from their struggle to self-govern that we would form into "factions" (their term for political parties and special interests), and in the end discover that we could simply vote ourselves gifts from the public treasury.
We can do better than this! The Founders offered us one defense against the abuse of power. James Madison put it best when he worried to a friend, "Popular government without popular information is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy, or perhaps both. A people that mean to be their own governors, must arm themselves with the power that knowledge gives."
The Voter's Self-Defense System that Project Vote Smart is constructing is a rebirth of that ideal. It provides instant access to factual, accurate and relevant information on every incumbent and candidate running for Congress, governor and Legislature -- their voting records, positions, speeches, campaign finances, ratings by competing special interest groups, backgrounds and contact information -- through the Vote Smart Web site (www.vote-smart.org) and the Voter's Research Hotline (1-888-VOTE SMART).
To fight for and then toss out the power to control your life to millions of people -- strangers you do not know or have any hope of knowing -- without fighting to protect their right to abundant, accurate, relevant information would make us the fools that Adams, Jefferson, Madison and Washington all feared might one day exist.
Richard Kimball is president of Project Vote Smart.