We all hold the office of citizen
It's a time of transition — for me, personally, and for our state and country as well. Transition and change can be uncomfortable, even scary. But I have always found comfort and inspiration in the concepts upon which our democracy was founded. That continues to hold true because those concepts and ideals continue to be relevant today. You could argue the real genius of what was created in the 1700s wasn't a document, or specific structures of government, but rather a dynamic and living system with enough flexibility that it could be continually challenged and be tested.
In the eyes of our Founders, the most important role in the land wasn't president. It wasn't Congress or the state legislatures. It was that of citizen. They did not conceptualize "citizen" as only denoting certain rights within our country, but also as having certain responsibilities. Thomas Jefferson spoke of "assuming the office of citizen." The idea was that this was a critical role in a democratic society. A role which we are not only given, but one that we must also actively play.
Reflecting on 12 years in public office, one of the most important bits of wisdom I would pass along is that the relationship between "we the people" — citizens — and our elected officials is just that: a relationship. It's a two-way relationship in which both sides speak, both sides are heard, both sides contribute and both sides are accountable. It must be so if we believe that "citizen" is the highest office and the land and elected representatives are simply citizens who take a turn representing us at our various levels of government.
It's tempting and easy, however, to think of our relationship with our elected officials — at any level — as transactional. I have this problem; fix it. I have this opinion; hear it. It's tempting and easy because it's so similar to the consumer transactions with which we are familiar in the many other areas of life.
But citizens are not consumers. Citizens are also contributors. Citizens are partners. We have energy and ideas; thoughts and solutions. A dynamic and participatory democracy demands a recognition that we not only have the right make our voices heard, but also the responsibility to educate and inform ourselves, own our share of the problem, and contribute to the solution.
When we think of the relationship between citizen and elected representative as transactional, we do things like send pre-made postcards or form emails to our elected officials, or write a check to an interest group. These certainly let an elected official know the issue is out there and cared about. But it doesn't engage you and that elected official in a dialogue, that critical two-way opportunity to build an ongoing and mutually accountable relationship. The Founders did not intend democracy to be transactional; they intended it to be participatory.
When I have the opportunity to teach young adults about getting involved in government, I tell them my goal is for them to "get their hands dirty" in the policymaking process. I tell them they can — and should — know their local and state elected officials. And out of that comes the opportunity to be more than just an observer or even participant in the policymaking process. It brings the opportunity, even without an election certificate, to be a producer of solutions. To shape the outcome.
There are many challenges before us at all levels of government, and our democracy not only needs all of us, but requires all of us, to be engaged in the process of governing.