“We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect Union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”

We recognize the preceding words as the preamble to our national Constitution. We’ve heard them in whole or in part throughout our lives, but as I listen to the conversations around me, as I read and answer comments to my own essays, it seems to me as if these ideals have become nothing more than words on a page. We see them. We read them. We say them. Yet we don’t seem to truly grasp what they mean. The intentions of the men who wrote these words so many years ago have been lost in the sea of prosperity and personal gratification so that they no longer hold the same promise that they once did. Or rather, the promise is still there, but the readers no longer believe in it. The importance of understanding these ideals is paramount if our chosen form of government, self-rule, is to endure.

We The People These first three words are the most important words in the entire preamble because it is with these three words that our form of government is established. We the people. Say it out loud and let it roll across your tongue. We the people. It couldn’t be any simpler to understand. We are our government. We are the ones responsible for making the decisions. We are the ones responsible for accountability. The government is us. From a practical standpoint, this is even truer today than when the framers wrote these words, for in their time, women couldn’t vote, non-whites couldn’t vote, often the poor couldn’t even vote. But as we’ve intellectually matured as a group, these inequities have been remedied and today, every adult American citizen has the chance to speak their mind about the workings of government, through their votes and their voices. But we don’t. It is time to quit thinking about government as an entity apart from the people, because in doing so, we establish a rivalry when one should never be.

From the left and from the right and even from the politicians, we hear how we can’t trust the government with this or how we need the government for that or how the government screwed up this or lied about that. We love to trash our elected leaders and advance their cynicism through decisive but utterly trivial matters while turning a blind eye to overt dereliction of political duty and outright corruption. We choose our leaders with one and a half eyes closed, and then keep sending them back regardless of their dedication to serving the citizens of the land. And the really sad part is that those doing the choosing barely represent half of the Americans whose voice should be heard. And the cycle is a self-perpetuating one. Less direct participation means less understanding, leading to less interest, accountability, and trust, which leads to further alienation, completing the circle. Mostly through apathy, We The People have abdicated our self-determination and bemoaned its loss in the same breath, and now we are left in two camps. One camp distrusts all things governmental and won’t have anything to do with it, including voting, except when they somehow personally benefit. The other camp distrusts all things governmental too, but gets out and votes for one side while spewing vileness at the other. With just over half of half of the population deciding which ideology will rule the day, We The People does not live up to its potential.

The other parts of the Preamble provide a course of action for our government to follow. “In order to form a more perfect Union,” implies compromise when necessary to further the goals of society in ways that benefit the greatest number of people. Promoting “justice, domestic tranquility, common defense and general welfare” outlines the established parameters for our government to work within, and “to secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity” instills in us the duty to balance the benefits of today’s decisions with the consequences for tomorrow’s public. But in the light of today’s political environment, compromise is considered a sign of weakness, promoting the common good is passé, and forward thinking is a waste of time. This is what happens when We The People separate ourselves from our government. Without We The People, the whole thing just sort of falls apart.

Sitting around complaining about the failings of government can be a productive thing, but only if it leads to action to fix the problem. Yet in the charged political climate we find ourselves in, new ideas are torn apart without examining their merit while each side accuses the other of stonewalling. We look at this mess from afar, thinking we can’t possibly make a difference, but to think that is wrong. We have a voice. We have to use it. It is preposterous for any political party to lay claim to having a mandate from the people. They could at best claim a slim victory between the most vocal. But imagine if every eligible citizen turned out to vote and let his or her voices be heard. All these previously unheard voices would need someone to represent them and their needs, bringing more variety into the political arena, more opportunity for real representation, more willingness to try new ideas, to fix the status quo when it needs fixing.

By its very nature, politics is powerful. But it should not be about having power. In selecting people to make our collective decisions for us, we entrust them with our daily lives. Such trust should not be taken lightly, but it is because low citizen participation ensures easy reelection and low accountability. It is time for that to end. It is time to let our voices be heard, all of our voices. We hold our election process up to the world as the model which to follow, and brag about mandates with 50% or less of eligible voter turnout. Then we turn around and mock as “banana republics” those countries whose voter turnout is in the 60% range. Am I alone in seeing the hypocrisy of this? As we continue the slide towards apathy, the situation will only get worse, with fewer and fewer people making the decisions that affect us all.

So where do We The People go from here? First, make sure that you vote, especially in federal and state elections. Encourage others to vote or help get people registered. Talk to each other. Think about solutions to our shared problems instead of tearing apart new ideas because “the government can’t be trusted.” If we don’t trust our government, we are really saying that we don’t trust each other or ourselves. Find people you can trust and help get them elected. After all, our elected officials are raised in our communities and are supposed to share our values, values that have guided us for generations even as they continue to evolve. Leave the political party machines that depend on your fears and mistrusts to stay in power. Support people who will truly stand for the values laid out in the Preamble to our Constitution. By putting ourselves back in the driver’s seat, We The People can revive the trust in self-government, tear down the wall we’ve created, and get back to establishing justice, insuring domestic tranquility, providing for the common defense, promoting the general welfare, and securing the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity as we were set out to do.