Democracy is a set of habits, and the passage of legislation federalizing health care in the face of its massive unpopularity is the latest, most dramatic proof that we have adopted some that are ill-suited to current realities. The starkest of these realities is that representative government is failing because a self-serving, self-perpetuating and bipartisan political class has taken over and escaped the control of the people (as shown by the 94 percent re-election rate for members of the U.S. House of Representatives).
Here are a few of the bad habits that have brought about the current crisis.
• Paying attention only to the national, ignoring the state and local.
"ObamaCare" occurred on a national stage, but almost all its players arrived there after apprenticeships at lower levels of government.
The political class consists almost entirely of political careerists whose primary goal is to avoid the hard accountability of the private sector for the remainder of their working lives. One of the most important lessons they learn in the state and local minor leagues is that one gets ahead by serving the system instead of serving the people.
Voters reward this behavior by not paying attention to what goes on in state and local elected bodies. Later they are shocked to see the same things done in Congress. They shouldn't be.
• Accepting participation in the "sausage making" legislative process as the appropriate form of citizen involvement, rather than demanding accountability through the political process.
The standard civics book text for how to "be involved" describes the early 20th century Progressive movement's vision of "participatory democracy": Go to all the meetings, read the bills, discuss and lobby on the legislative details, etc.
Our Founders had a very different vision - representative democracy: Elect people who reflect your values and then go live your life. If they don't uphold your values, replace them with ones who do. Yes communicate your views, but if you're fighting for "the Stupak amendment" or whatever the legislative detail du jour, you've already lost.
This doesn't mean disengage between elections, but target actions primarily at political goals, not particular legislative outcomes. For example, don't "participate" as an individual in the local council tax-hike meetings, but do picket them as a group on the sidewalk in front.
• Focusing only on social hot-button issues that generate political posturing at the expense of real change.
Abortion, guns, gay marriage and immigration are not unimportant, but for the political class their main purpose is to distract you. The proper course on such issues is to state your preference, support it with contributions to the appropriate interest group, vote it, even campaign for it. But be aware that system-serving politicians who talk mostly about these issues do so to divert you from examining who they really are.
• Focusing on legal complaints rather than political action.
The current TEA Party movement is filled with exhortations to "read the Constitution." Reading the Declaration of Independence is better advice, because it contains inspirational "fightin' words," and that's what we're in - a political fight.
In contrast, the Constitution is a legal document. It's a contract that's been broken, but the only court with jurisdiction mostly favors the other side. Changing that and restoring representative government requires political weapons - persuasion and votes - not legal theories.
• Giving politicians credit for their political careerism.
Most politicians' biographies recite a history of past elective or appointive offices, under a heading that reads something like, "A history of service." Citizens should ask, "Service to what and who?" and not assume that the answer is "the people."
• Defining your identity in terms of a political party or candidate.
Political parties are mere instruments to gain power, not virtuous machines that exercise that power in noble ways. Use them and their candidates only as tools toward your ends, not theirs. Your loyalty is too valuable to sell so cheaply.
Related, be aware that who loses an election is usually more important than who wins. Our republic won't be saved by electing a minority of virtuous patriots, and such souls will never attain a majority, but when a politician loses for doing the wrong things it changes the behavior of all of them.
• When conventional media fails, whining rather than finding alternatives.
Whether or not the mainstream media has a liberal bias, it certainly has an establishment bias in what it chooses not to cover. Find alternative sources that provide the information you need.
That doesn't mean get all your information from national talk radio and cable network opinion shows, either - potentially another bad habit. Such programs generate more heat than light, and yelling at your TV screen will never change the world.
Instead, do some networking to find sources for the state and local information you need. Plug in to the Facebook pages of state activists and political actors. Find political blogs that provide information rather than just opinions. State-based think tanks are increasingly providing news. Don't automatically exclude sources that don't share your point of view.
Information is power. Finding it may take a little effort at first, but once you're plugged in it will increasingly find you.
There are certainly more bad habits. It took a long time for our republic to reach its current state, and even if recovery is possible it won't happen overnight. The concepts discussed here are just a starting point.
Jack McHugh is senior legislative analyst at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and educational institute headquartered in Midland, Mich. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that the author and the Center are properly cited.