UNPACKING THE BACKPACK – Is our democracy truly representative?

As midterm elections approach, I’m just spitballing ideas here, and I think voters should honestly reflect on President George Washington’s advice upon leaving the Presidency – political parties need to take a back seat to representative democracy. Basically, it would be a great thing for the country if elected legislators and officials started representing their district and constituents, rather than representing special interests and their political parties. And representing district constituents should include all residents, not just 51 percent of them.

In his book The Conservative Sensibility, columnist George Will discusses the problems of majority rule, and explains how the Constitution and systems of the United States are intended to protect minority views from a tyranny of the majority. In a time when elections, votes, and polls are often divided by a couple percentage points or less, it seems all the more important for leaders to commit to more authentic representation of all their citizens.

How many politicians have we heard pledge a commitment and desire to represent the people, not special interests? The latest candidate to campaign on representing people not party is Colorado Senate candidate Joe O’Dea, a Colorado businessman running for his first political job. Joe O’Dea seems like a really good guy who is genuinely interested in the best interests of Colorado. O’Dea’s challenge is that Michael Bennet also comes across as a really good guy who represents the state’s goals and interests, which is why voters have elected him twice.

The reason Colorado is a majority independent, unaffiliated electorate is because voters don’t want to align with extremes. That said, it’s tougher to determine whether they truly are independent, supporting candidates from both sides, or whether they simply don’t want to be labeled. Either way, Colorado has the opportunity to be a bi-partisan state. Granted, I know many people are surprised when I post yard signs for both Democrats and Republicans, as if it’s unimaginable to be moderate and open-minded. 

However, that’s also why centrist candidates have led the way in Colorado for twenty years, including a string of governors who are popular as pro-business Democrats. That distinction holds true for the governor-turned-Senator John Hickenlooper, as well as two-term Senator Bennet. As a Democrat, Bennet is a noted member of the “Gang of Eight,” a group of representatives who collaborated across party lines on immigration reform for the good of their constituents and the country. 

Too many voters feel disenfranchised these days. Imagine being a progressive Democrat in a solidly red district, or a conservative Republican in a progressive stronghold. Their votes literally don’t count because their representatives don’t care. In the 1960s and 70s, elected representatives voted party-lines just two-thirds of the time. These days it’s about 93%. Clearly, there are few if any issues where everyone agrees completely. But on plenty of issues, more than 51 percent agree, even on the hottest of topics. For example, despite the Supreme Court’s reversal of Roe, two-thirds of Americans believe abortion procedures should be legal and accesible in most situations, or as Bill Clinton said – it should be “safe, legal, and rare.” Eighty percent of Americans support stricter gun laws including background checks, red flag laws, restrictions on high capacity firearms, even licensing and registration. However, despite the data, compromise has given way to all-or-nothing politics, and that’s not good for anyone, except lobbyists and talk show hosts.

In his later years, my dad was known to most as a solid partisan voter, even being a precinct committeeman. However, in my youth I recall hearing him often tell people, “I still haven’t decided who I’m going to vote for,” even at the presidential level. He thought long and hard about issues, voting his conscience, and he had great respect for members of both parties. That changed in the mid-1990s, a time most experts point to as the rise of our recent extremism. 

Recent columns in the Denver Post from former CU Regent Jim Martin and former Representative Pat Schroeder have lamented America’s crisis of trust in each other and the institutions that ground society in shared beliefs and vision. They have called for a commitment from voters and leaders to seek unity and authentic representation of all constituents. Imagine if elected leaders actually focused on representing all their constituents, and listening to opposing views in search of compromise. That might be a step toward a “more perfect union.” 

Michael P. Mazenko is a writer, educator, & school administrator in Greenwood Village. He blogs at A Teacher’s View and can be found on Twitter @mmazenko. You can email him at mmazenko@gmail.com