In democratic societies, government is said to be “for the people, by the people, and of the people.” In the broadest sense, one could infer from this that governing institutions such as ours are not controlled by hereditary clans or moneyed interests, but instead are an amalgam of the interests of the general public, instituted by representatives of the public who are drawn from the population of common citizens. Take a good look at the political landscape today. Look back twenty years, thirty years, fifty years. The government we have today isn’t, and hasn’t been for some time, for the people, by the people, or of the people. It is a system filled with wealthy men and women, some from political families that span generations. It is a system of unabashed cronyism and political appointees whose only qualifications are the donations they collected. It is a system of flagrant corporate collusion that puts the profits over the people. And it is a system that is largely being abandoned by the very people it purports to represent, through their compounding apathy bred by years of stagnancy and corruption. We are losing our experiment with self-determination largely because we are failing to preserve it.

Our founding fathers held many lofty ideals regarding the state of mankind and its right and ability to self-govern. Their words are recorded in our most precious national documents and in their speeches and memoirs. Phrases like “All men are created equal,” and “…life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” inspire us, but if looked at in the context of the actions of those who spoke them, it becomes obvious that the phrases and their meanings, like humanity itself, have evolved to more truly represent their empirical meanings. In 1776, all men were not equal. Equality in those days was reserved for white, male landowners. In 1776, life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness were not applicable to blacks or Indians or any other non-European descendant. It wasn’t really for the poor either, at least not to the same degree as it was applied to the wealthier population. But words have meaning, and when words such as these are enshrined in national politics, they have a tendency to assert themselves. And in a democracy, even one with obvious limitations, these words have a way of realizing their true potential. Today’s definition of “all men are created equal” includes men of all colors and races, including women and children. And though it occurred gradually, at times even painfully slowly, it has taken the will and determination of common people to realize the dreams that words such as those promise. So it is the same with the phrase “government for the people, by the people, and of the people.”

Government for the People What does this phrase mean to you? Does it mean that governmental bodies should spend their days crafting favorable legislation for their political donors? Does it mean that tax dollars collected should be diverted to meaningless studies or inefficient, bloated, or poorly managed programs? Does it mean that your elected officials should ignore their fundamental role as servant to the citizens or politicize issues that have no place in the political realm? Does it mean that government should be an exclusive club requiring the right pedigree or personal connection? Or does the phrase “government for the people” imply that any action undertaken by our governmental officials must have at its core an overwhelming public benefit, provided with the greatest efficiency and highest available quality? Perhaps the biggest problem with our government today, and I’m talking about all levels of government from the local and state levels all the way to the federal system, is that politicians no longer seem to remember that ours is supposed to be a government for the people. Instead, they use their positions of trust and influence to increase their own power base and personal wealth while helping their buddies to the public till as well. Pick up a newspaper and you’re sure to find an article a day about public officials getting charged with a crime or about an agencies fiscal undoing. Our government is no longer for the people, except for a relatively select few who get richer at the expense of the rest of the population, for the simple reason that it is no longer a government of the people.

Government of the People Government of the people is the inside joke of our national and local political systems. Even at its inception, none of the ruling class of the day really wanted to open up the halls of power to the common man. Inferred, but seldom verbalized was the notion that politics was the domain of the wealthy or college educated or socially connected person and definitely not a place for the dirt farmer or the taxi driver or the construction laborer. Every so often, a man of humble origins would find himself elected to office, but his ascent could usually be traced through military service, lending an air of courage and strength in place of sophistication and birthright. The result is a ruling class, albeit an elected one, that has little in common with the general population, save the need to eat and drink and sleep. For a government to be for the people, if must first be of the people. Unfortunately, those who have passed the reins of power among their social and literal descendants have also gamed the system so as to preclude admission from any but those already like themselves. The process to become an officially recognized candidate for political office is fraught with barriers that to an average working person may be unbreakable. But to a person with money and access, political office is more of a game or a hobby, with the added benefit of increasing ones own net worth at the expense of the public tax roll. To restrict the playing field even more, political aspirants not affiliated with a major party are ignored by the press (controlled of course by the moneyed interests) and required to prove their ballot “worthiness” by jumping through additional bureaucratic hoops. And if you can get through all of that, there’s still the matter of collecting thousands of signatures or paying an entrance fee to become a candidate. If you’re working a job to feed the family, when do you find time to go signature gathering? Or maybe you’ve got a few thousand dollars just lying around to buy your name on the ballot? Designs like these often ensure that the common man does not get a chance to represent his fellow citizens. Those that are truly of the people are locked out from the start.

Government by the People Because government is not really representative of the people, and because it is not truly for the people, it goes to reason that we don’t have a government by the people either. To say that a government is by the people is to imply that the things government does are things that the people want it to do. If the government asks the people to approve a tax for road improvements, then government must make sure that roads are improved with the revenue, because that’s what people directed government to do. This is an example of government by the people. But does your local government act this way. How about your state governments? Or does your government pursue its own agenda, dictated by the interests of its elite membership class, with little forethought towards the citizens other than finding a snazzy way to present their latest swindle? If government were really operating under the principal “by the people” we would not have cities and states on the brink of bankruptcy. We would not have national laws flaunted by violators and unenforced by lawmakers. We would not have record level deficits or destructive national policies because the people would not let these things stand. Not if they had any real say they wouldn’t.

Words do have meaning, and the words “for the people, by the people, and of the people” have meaning too. But in order for their full meaning to be realized, we must recognize the importance of our place in maintaining and ensuring such a government. For the American experiment in government to be a success for all citizens, we must reinvigorate our role in this participatory government of self-rule. We must reinvent ourselves as concerned and involved citizens. We must all vote and perform other civic duties like serving on a jury or sitting on citizen advisory panels. We must also reform our political financing laws and streamline the process for candidate eligibility. We must clearly express what we expect and what we will not tolerate from politicians and crack down on government corruption, including the loss of personal privacy in an increasingly shrinking world of information. And we must be willing to serve each other selflessly for the common good and to give back to our society as thanks for all that we get in return.

Words have meaning. But unless we speak them loud enough and often enough and back them up with our actions, words are just words. And in this case, the words we ignore are the ones that come back to haunt us.