I’ve spent the last few weeks of 2011 thinking deeply about the 2012 Elections — the Presidential race and the fight to control Capitol Hill in the 113th Congress that begins January 2013. To the pundits inside the Capital Beltway, the talking heads and the Acela corridor columnists, the 2012 Election has so many storylines. There’s going to be plenty of material to write about just from the Republican primaries, before we even get to the general election. The volatility is high, with uncertainty regarding the U.S. House races (big key: newly drawn seats due to redistricting) and U.S. Senate control could swing back to the Republicans.
As always, conversations with my family and friends in “Real America” — the middle and working-class suburbs of Detroit — have clarified my perspective. The 2012 Election, for all the races from President on down to Dog Catcher, will be about politicians listening to voters. No matter who I talk to, whether a Republican, a Democrat, an independent or a libertarian, they all share resonating concern for the direction of the country. They feel America is in decline, they fear with increasing degree of dreadful certitude, that their children will have it worse than today’s generation. They don’t feel Washington is listening to their concerns. It is cliché, but they really don’t think elected officials feel their pain. As part of the 1 percent of America the Occupy movement has defined, politicians are isolated — geographically cloistered in Washington and financially protected from the struggles of job loss, underwater home equity and student loan bills.
At an event held on Capitol Hill recently, Facebook brought Hill staffers together with tech experts to discuss IT-driven solutions to common struggles of governing — constituent correspondence, press relations, casework and legislative processes (read: researching, writing and revising bills). I attended the event and joined the constituent correspondence breakout, joining other public service professionals in lamenting the struggle of modern day Capitol Hill.
More than any time before in history, voters have quick, easy ways to let their representatives in D.C. know what concerns they have. Yet, more than any time in history, those voters feel Washington isn’t listening. You can email, fax, call, write and visit the offices in person, but everyday citizens don’t feel like they make as much of an impact on the governing of America as do the special interests. Leave aside whether that feeling reflects a factual statement about how Washington works, that’s debatable. The truth alone that 80 to 90 percent of Americans feel this way is unacceptable and indicates a dereliction of duty on the part of American politicians.
Using tools like social media to rebuild the conversation with voters is critical, but it’s not sufficient. Washington needs to reorient itself. For that matter, state capitals and city halls need to rethink their attitudes towards the people. There’s valid cynicism and anger from both sides, from the Tea Party and from Occupy movement, that the only ones with the access to our leaders are the special interests and the deep-pocketed corporations. It’s a fair concern that campaign cash determines who gets the ear of the elected. To recover the trust of the American people, our leaders need to do more than tweet, they need to lead by listening — really listening, to the voters.
My hair stylist spent nearly my whole appointment last week wondering if there’s anyone left in politics who’s “for us” — who is acting first and foremost on behalf of what is best for the silent majority of Americans between the 40 yard lines ideologically and in the working and middle-class. She didn’t have to say it outright, but she was openly critical that anyone is listening — In Lansing, Michigan’s capital, or in Washington. We even discussed briefly how the mayor and city council of nearby Troy, Michigan had rejected money for a jobs-creating transit center.
As someone who feels called to use his life to serve others, and plans to run for elected office so that he can serve others, I find deeply disturbing the almost universal sentiment that politicians are no longer servants of the people. No one thinks a man or woman running for office is honestly interested in, and will fight for, what the average voter has to say. Even when a politician says on the campaign trail “I’m listening, I hear you,” I wonder whether more than 25 percent even give them the benefit of the doubt; probably not.
I think the large chasm between what President Obama promised, and the actions he has taken to deliver on those promises, has made this cynicism nearly impossible to reverse. But it’s not impossible to rebuild that trust from the public, to reverse the downward trend in public trust that’s continued from Watergate and gotten exponentially worse since 2008.
2012 is going to be about this type of honest listening, the kind that seems absent in politics today. Yet, November 2012 won’t change anything. The people elected will need to follow through on their promises to listen. They’re going to have to lead, with actions that address the concerns of the voters, taking steps that truly match the scale of America’s greatest problems.