Holding Government Accountable

Americans of various political stripes across the country often ask how they can hold government accountable. Citizens on the Right and Left, at various times, express outrage and occasionally helplessness as they witness the passage of policies and programs that seem at odds with the Constitution, democratic principles and values, bereft of wisdom and even common sense.

     Citizens actually have many tools to promote government accountability and to improve the quality—and civility—of political dialogue. Beyond the First Amendment rights that all Americans can exercise, including freedom of speech, assembly and the right to petition government for redress of grievances, let us consider five ways to elevate political discussion, regardless of your political views.

     First, stop political labeling. The practice of endorsing or dismissing an idea merely because it is characterized as liberal or conservative is a lazy citizen’s way of avoiding the obligation of citizenship, which requires analysis of the relative merits of an idea or proposal. In fact, the practice of labeling is simplistic and circular, and little more than a self-fulfilling prophecy. It ignores, for example, the fact of changing definitions and shifting criteria that mark the fluidity of democratic politics. Widespread labeling, moreover, gives a pass to elected officials who know they can woo and win an audience that is vulnerable to descriptions and judgments grounded in ideological characterizations.

   Second, listen. Nobody has a monopoly on political wisdom. A refusal to listen to competing arguments, an exercise in arrogance, rests on the assumption that we have nothing to learn from our fellow citizens. The tenets of constitutional democracy reject the concept of human infallibility and reflect the understanding that public policy can be improved through the process of discussion. Listening to an opposing position or dissenting opinion may lead us to reconsider the merits of our own position and, perhaps, affirm the strength of our convictions. Alternatively, it may also persuade us to recognize the deficiencies in our position and improve upon it, or embrace a different view. Everyone gains when we participate in this educational process.

    Third, citizens must be fair to one another. Constructive dialogue requires fair and accurate representations of opposing arguments, particularly in a system that rests on the principle of government based on the consent of the governed. This requires respect for facts and evidence, and rejection of distortion and demagoguery. Nothing of substance is achieved through straw-man arguments. Fooling people into adopting one’s political position is a hollow victory; indeed, such fraudulent tactics contradict the premise of winning “consent” from fellow citizens, since people who are deceived are hardly “consenting” to something.

   Fourth, avoid the politics of destruction. Politics is not war, and words are not bullets. It is wise to remember, after all, that in a democracy, which is fluid and reflective of changing views and values, and grounded in compromise, that today’s opponents may be tomorrow’s allies. We should be tough on issues, but tender toward people. Thus, it is important to avoid coercion, threats and intimidation. The effort to destroy opponents, moreover, is likely to curb participation in politics, since it will exacerbate apathy and cynicism. In a democracy, it should be recalled, we seek social conditions that encourage participation and honest give-and-take in the discussion of policies, programs and laws.

     Fifth, avoid ideological rigidity.  Compromise is the engine of democracy, a proven means of achieving consensus, which is critical to the establishment of political legitimacy and stability. Compromise is particularly important in a nation like the United States, which boasts many different views and values, derived from various religious faiths, political orientations and cultural patterns. Efforts to achieve ideological purity are fruitless; it is far better to gain something than nothing.  Half a loaf is better than no bread at all. Driving off the cliff, partisan flags flying, reflects the politics of impotence, for it shrinks political participation and squanders appeal and potential. The wages of rigidity may be measured in President Woodrow Wilson’s refusal to negotiate with members of the U.S. Senate on his proposal for America’s entry into the League of Nations. As observers noted, Wilson “strangled his own baby.”

      The founders’ goal of achieving governmental accountability, which drafted American citizens into their own great cause, remains our nation’s greatest experiment. Americans have the tools necessary to make the experiment successful, if only they will use them.