America’s Founding Fathers turned their beliefs in liberty, freedom, and tyranny into an unrivaled success story they probably hoped future Americans would value enough to preserve. James Madison spoke of civil liberty and limits on government. Benjamin Franklin warned about the religion of ignorance. Thomas Jefferson touted the spirit of resistance. John Adams believed that liberty is power. As we prepare to celebrate another Fourth of July, we might ask why so many Americans seem to not care about their liberty and are content to let others make decisions for them. Is American democracy in the 21st century about forsaking our liberty to decide what our government does and who will represent us?
Americans like liberty, dislike their government.
Most Americans would probably tell you that liberty is a good thing, but polls repeatedly show that Americans don’t like their government, even though we are the ones with the power to choose it. Thomas Jefferson assigned us the responsibility of preserving our liberty by showing government the spirit of resistance, but if we see anything in election results it is too often passivity, not opposition. When we cast our votes, we seem content to resign ourselves to more of the same.
With an abysmal presidential approval rating of 41% as of June 22, 20141 and a Congress that began the year with an approval rating of 13%,2 how do we account for primaries that put the same senators and representatives on the ballot term after term and an upcoming presidential election that may put a Democratic retread on the ballot? If so many Americans are unhappy with Congress, what candidate could possibly be worse than what voters already have and why are Americans unwilling to insist on something different?
Voters in Mississippi and New York made their decisions last week on who would represent them in the November election. Democrats switched sides to help long-time Republican Senator Thad Cochran beat his Tea Party opponent. New York voters threw in on Charles Rangel, a perennial member of the House who is facing new ethics questions after being censured in 2010.
Why do politicians like Rangel and Cochran still get our votes? Because Americans are willing to trade dependence for the responsibilities of liberty. Public officials who don’t bring home the bacon don’t get reelected.
Rangel doesn’t stay in office after being censured by being a dummy. He knows what constituents want, from a minimum wage boost to extended jobless benefits. He apologized in a recent press release for the absence of retroactive unemployment insurance payouts in a House bill:
Unlike previous legislation, however, this measure would not provide retroactive lump-sum payments to millions of workers who have not received a single cent since last December.3
It would have been hard to convince our founders that the government owes us something simply because we once held a job. They would have agreed that we owe it to our country to create a better government, though, and liberty demands that we take the responsibility for who and what we install during elections. Unfortunately, liberty is only powerful if we live up to its demands.
Liberty isn’t power if we ignore it.
Liberty is power only if we choose to do something with it. Americans have had their individual rights violated time and again by federal policies that extend what Jefferson called the “tyrant’s will.” The oppressive Affordable Care Act has taken a back seat to current Obama administration scandals that speak to what happens when our government’s grip gets too tight. Instead of outrage at the polls by voters who expect their candidates to watch America’s back, primaries are showing acceptance of more of the same. Even new conservative blood has been trounced in primary elections against old guard politicians like Kentucky’s Mitch McConnell who have outlived their usefulness but still know how to make the right noises to bring out the vote.
Incumbents rule. Why?
If we are so dissatisfied with government, why is the rate for keeping incumbents in office so high? In the 2012 election, 64% of incumbents were reelected to the Senate.4 Incumbents were re-elected to the House a stunning 81% of the time.5 In October 2012, just before Americans cast their ballots to keep 351 House members in office, our approval rating for Congress was 21%.6
One of the responsibilities of liberty is making sure those we put in office respect that liberty, but many of us don’t make the effort. From elections in states like Illinois where almost anyone is better than what we already have (see: Political Freedom Doesn’t Matter to Illinois Voters), to national elections where the decision is often an afterthought, when the time comes to resist we fail to live up to our founder’s expectations. What did four bad years of Obama get us? A less than 60% voter turnout in 2012 that vindicated the president’s record with fewer ballots cast than the 2008 catastrophe that put him in office.
The Founding Fathers anticipated we would value their ideals enough to put some effort into defending them. Americans will make the effort to go to fireworks displays on Friday and will attend barbecues and travel out of town, all of which take a lot more determination than casting a ballot to decide the direction the country will take. Fireworks are only a symbol. Living up to the responsibilities of liberty is something real that too many of us find it easy to ignore.