Until about a year ago, I lived in the Washington, DC area and was chief staff executive for a national trade association advocating the interests of small business to Congress, federal agencies, the White House and the media. It was a grand experience, but it was exhausting. I was amazed by the abundance of diverse interests and the money that drove the political system.
The struggles between political interest groups were constant and the pressure between factions within my organization was nearly as intense as that from similar-interest groups outside my organization. During the years from 1987 to 1999, I witnessed the Reagan, Bush and Clinton administrations up close. From the budget battles and tax issues to regulatory reform and health care, I had the chance to engage issues at the highest levels of our federal government. Yet after all that time, to a large degree, the same issues came up over and over and over again. I grew tired of all the political logjams and the overwhelming influence of money on the national political agenda. It was time for me to exit and get back into the real world of communities, families, neighborhoods, businesses, entrepreneurship and economic opportunities.
Watching this year's presidential race from Charlotte has been similarly frustrating. Other than the debate in Winston-Salem, the candidates virtually ignored North Carolina. It was decided early on that the Carolinas were not in contest.
Growing up in the Midwest, I watched candidates battle over the southern states. Now they battle over Ohio, Michigan, Illinois and Wisconsin. As a result, it was hard to get excited about the presidential race.
The public's indecision, lack of interest and the apathy this year were also readily apparent, even if easily understood. While the differences in the positions of the candidates were sometimes clear, the direct impact of their positions on our lives is not so clear. Rhetoric flows so easily, change is not so easy. Campaigns simply advocate. Numerous layers of elected officials govern in a system of "checks and balances" influenced by well-healed lobbyists and multinational moneyed interests. We cannot always be sure about which candidate will do a better job of improving our schools, preserving our environment, widening our highways and keeping the economy rolling along so we can keep our jobs and pay our mortgages and feed our families.
It seems to me, though, that ultimately the results of this year's elections will be a reflection of the elections we make ourselves - to express our concerns to appropriate officials in a timely fashion, to participate in our own governance in whatever ways and to whatever extents possible (from involvement in local PTAs to becoming full-time government representatives), to perform our own roles in the system - i.e. our jobs - responsibly and to hold others to the same high standards, and to instill these same initiatives in our children. The best example we can set for our elected officials is that of our own. If we do not personally elect to make the world we live in better, we can hardly expect that of anyone else.
So...when I feel rather confused and powerless to change such a megasystem of substantially competing interests, I ask myself "Am I doing all that I can be doing to make known my dissatisfaction, personally participating in ameliorating those dissatisfactions, and doing my own job as well as I expect others to do theirs?"