I’ve been thinking about norms lately; maybe “obsessing” would be better word. And not just norms for our elected officials (we’ll get to that, believe me) but also the norms that bind communities, keep us safe, and make rural America a very special place to live. For example, in my hometown of Elk Point, SD if you see some kids walking down the middle of the road, you pull over and let them know that’s a very dumb and dangerous thing to do. It’s also the reason you’d be a fool to: not pay your bills, steal your neighbor’s newspaper, or have an affair. In small communities, we are interconnected in ways the rest of the country is not. That guy you stiffed for mowing your yard, guess what: He’s a volunteer fireman or has a kid in your class or his grandpa and your grandpa were punching Nazis together in WWII or a million other connections. Jerks become hermits, cut off from resources and community benefits. But alas, these norms are eroding for what seems like a tsunami of reasons: digital tribalism, economic insecurity, and fear of the “other” (sowed by news outlets more interested in keeping us afraid rather than holding our public officials accountable, the once noble cause of the Fourth Estate).
Which brings me to our government and elected officials. There was once a time when holding office was a sign of service and selfless duty to better your community, like serving in the military (nobody goes into the military expecting to get rich, trust me). It may be one of the reasons why the US Military ranks the highest in public trust. Unfortunately, the new expectation is that politicians seek office for personal gain. It has jaded us and closed our minds to the possibility of public service being its own reward. (I’ll keep us out of the Trump-weeds here, his disdain for norms is well documented.) However, there are other norms we are slowly losing besides lying, conflicts of interest, corruption, and vulgarity…and not just in D.C.
The latest and most insidious form of norm-breaking is the disregard of the voters’ expressed will. In South Dakota, the latest manifestation was the Anti-Corruption Law passed in November of 2016, to which our law makers said: Nah, we don’t want to have to answer to an Ethics Committee and track our meals from lobbyists. Once they got their “sea legs” they came up with “Ah…it’s unconstitutional, yeah that’s it” (never mind that it’s up to a judge to determine that) and “The voters were duped, yeah we realize they voted for us”. On the back of this stunning disrespect for the will of the voters, here in SD in 2018 our legislature has opened the flood gate on a number of bills diminishing the power of DIRECT DEMOCRACY: initiatives, referred laws, and constitutional amendments. These bills range from changing “Yes” to “No” on ballot issues to increasing the number of signatures needed to get a measure on the ballot in the first place. The question is WHY??? After much thought and consternation, I’ve only been able to come up with one answer: Because they can, without any electoral consequences. We the voters of SD have allowed them to break this norm. All of this and they have the gall to ask for a pay raise!
You might say, “Hmm, no biggie” or “It doesn’t really affect my life”, but I’m here to tell you that each paper cut inflicted on a patient in the ICU matters. Our Democracy is dying the death of a thousand paper cuts, each of them draining the power of the voters and placing power into the hands of party hacks, lobbyists, and special interests. Each nick is extremely difficult to repair, if repairable at all.
So how to restore our norms? First we must recognize that we are not hapless victims of our elected officials, our Founders gave us the power to make swift and lasting change. We must hold our officials accountable, shame them by phone or email, and USE OUR VOTE to send them home when they look the other way. In short, we need a restoration: of our trust in good government, of accountability, and of, wait for it…our democratic norms.
Otherwise, this patient will bleed-out and be lost forever.