Your Engagement Matters: Jefferson Smith at TEDxConcordiaUPortland (Transcript)

I want to talk about democracy and power this morning. I want to offer a simple idea that I think can help us understand it better, and understand our duty to make democracy work. But before I do that, I want to tell a story.

I was really honored to be included, and thrilled to be asked, and I was struck that we get together live; we don’t just wait for it to come out on the Internet. How come? I guess it’s because when we’re exploring ideas, we like to know there are other people helping, even if we can’t always see them, and even if sometimes they aren’t. Which makes me think of a story.

A man was driving down a country road, and he crashed into a ditch. To his good fortune came along a strong pulling horse named “Buddy”. The farmer hitched the horse to the car, and he said, “Pull, Billy, pull!” The horse didn’t move. He said, “Pull, Buster, pull!” Still, nary a flicker. He finally said, “Pull, Buddy, pull!” The horse very easily pulled the car out of the ditch. The driver was appreciative and said, “Sir, thank you very much, but why did you call the horse by the wrong name?” The farmer said, “You have to understand. Buddy’s blind. If he thought he was the only one pulling, he wouldn’t even try.”

Why do we get together like this? We need to be talking to the people who aren’t coming to the meetings. But sometimes it’s helpful to know there’s others helping, even if we can’t always see them, even if sometimes, they aren’t. So when it comes to democracy, when it comes to our system of governance, who’s pulling the cart? We divide political power among different lines. Very often political party lines, depending on country and era, racial lines, religious lines can be more powerful, more divisive. I want to offer a different understanding, a different way of dividing political power, and there is a very simple grid.

Let’s take this simple grid; on one side we put “private interest”, the other side, we put “public interest”. That’s not the same as bad or good, or good or bad. There’s things we’ll like on one side, and things we won’t like on the other. Rather it is just a rough delineation of whether the purpose of the entity is to advocate for its own benefit, the finances of its own members, or whether it’s some conception, for good or for ill, of the good of the order.

Imagine if on the other axis, we separated between single issue groups, and narrower issue groups, versus multi-issue groups. And it’s not usually accurate to say that any group is a single-issue group. Right? They’re usually broader than that. But it’s probably fair to roughly delineate between those that are more focused, and those that have a little broader issue agenda.

So let’s take one group; the beer wholesalers. That’s a good thing to do on a Saturday morning. There was a national magazine that came out with a ranking; they surveyed 22,000 insiders, came up with a ranking of the most powerful interest groups in the United States of America. Beer wholesalers ranked 8th. So where do we put them on our map? I would say they have a relatively focused agenda; the purpose of beer wholesalers is to advocate for the commercial interest of beer wholesalers, very understandably. I’d put them over there.

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Similarly, ranked 9th on that list was the realtors. Where do we put the realtors? Well they also have a relatively, modestly, lengthened agenda, focused on the understandable needs of the realty industry. So we might put them in a similar place. I put the health insurers in a similar place.

But what about something like the National Rifle Association? After we have some beer, we’ll get a gun! Now some might say, “They’re just a shill; a proxy for the gun manufacturers.” But the National Rifle Association, for a long time, has had a consistent view to protect one view; the second amendment. Focused, but there’s not, generally speaking, NRA members thinking they’re doing it because they’ll get an IPO at some point. So we put them in that box.

Similarly, Right to Life. The nation’s largest anti-abortion organization. Whether you support their objective, or find them abhorrent, there’s nobody, I think, who would suggest that people involved in American Right to Life are doing it because of financial benefit, but rather because of powerful beliefs. We might put them in the same box. Maybe AIPAC, focusing on fighting for Israel. What about something like the Chamber of Commerce? They also advocate for the financial interest of their members; many, many, many business members. But they’ve got a lot of members, and they address a lot of issues. So we might put them in that box.

They might say, “Wait, what about AFL-CIO? You have to put them with us!” We might say, “Well, maybe.” We also might say, with 12 million members, they might be a proxy for middle-class generally, and ARP might make the same argument. Rounding out the top 20, we might put in the NFIB. which is sort of a Chamber of Commerce for smaller businesses. We might fill out the top 20 with the home builders, and the Motion Pictures Association, and the doctors, and the hospitals, etc. And we might quibble about some places we might put some of the organizations.

Some would say the National Education Association is there to advocate for education, others would say for teachers. Some would say the Farm Bureau is to advocate for big farms, others would say it’s for food production. And there’s a lot of other groups below these 20. Or in addition to these 20. But rather than trying to name each group, or quibble about precise placement, the point becomes pretty clear: that box is harder to fill. And that is one of the most important structural defects facing our democracy. Because that’s where we want the voters to be. It’s the same over here. You can look at either one. That’s where we want our public servants to be. That’s where we want our government to be. Not focused on any particular or narrow interest, but the good of the order, and the whole order.

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