Making Your Voice Heard

This essay — minus the two paragraphs in the middle that refer to this project — was one of the first essays submitted for publication to the San Jose Mercury News. It was not published.  It was also the inaugural posting to this blog (though I later inserted things I’d written earlier).

Note that, when this was written, the entire concept of blogging — and its potential for bringing other voices to the public debate — did not exist. Clearly, blogging has had an effect on the way news is reported and on how we discuss public policy, but at the time this blog was created I considered its potential to affect public policy still indeterminate. This was one experiment to test that potential.

Despite the overall record of blogs actually having an effect, I consider my personal experiment mostly a failure.  I don’t know that anyone has yet figured out the sure-fire magic formula for making such an effort generally visible to the public — as distinct from available to the public, which is the easy part — but I sure haven’t.  As of 20 years later (I’m writing this update from 2018), there is no evidence that any of this has actually been read by more than  a handful of people….

11 November 1996

I know how to fix the health-care system.

Inspiration struck me one sleepless night during the waning days of the congressional fight over the Clinton health-care bill. It was simple. It was rational. It combined the best of market-driven and government-driven solutions. It addressed the concerns of all constituencies.

I told my friends about it. I told my congresswoman, too, and my senators. And Bob Dole. And George Mitchell. And, for good measure, Warren Rudman and Paul Tsongas (c/o the Concord Coalition).

I got no takers of course. No one, recognizing the utter brilliance of my proposal, called up to invite me to spearhead the legislative effort on its behalf. I did get two very nice “thank-you for your correspondence, our constituent’s opinions are very important but completely irrelevant” form-letter responses from Congresswoman Anna Eshoo’s and Senator Dianne Feinstein’s deputy assistant letter writers for responses to stupid constituent correspondence (OK, I admit that’s not a direct quote) but, other than that — nothing. I was ignored. I was very disappointed.

But not surprised. I am not connected. I have no letters after my name to make me an expert, no affiliation with a prestigious university or think-tank to lend me an aura of respectability, no history of large political contributions to facilitate an attentive audience with my elected representatives, no journalistic or political credentials to make me either an ally or an enemy in the mud-wrestling that passes for governance. All I have is ideas. I am a lone voter. A well-educated, intelligent, thinking voter, but a mere voter, nonetheless.

The reason I recount this episode is not to push my health-care agenda. I do have a proposal, which I think makes more sense than any of the others I’ve seen — but I could be utterly, wretchedly wrong about that. What most concerns me is not that my proposal was not implemented but that it was ignored; not that it got no national exposure and debate but that it never even made it past the initial screening of constituent mail in the local congressional office; not that it was rejected but that its merits (and shortcomings) were, to all appearances, never even considered.

Unfortunately, that experience is not unique. I frequently find that the discussions of public policy and social critique I encounter in the popular media — in newspapers and magazines, on television and radio news and analysis programs, in political speeches and in public debates — do not encompass my own perspectives, my own analyses, my own moral sense; and it has now been almost eight years since I have had the opportunity to vote for anyone, for any office, who I felt truly represented me, who I could support as a good, rather than merely the least destructive, choice. In response, I have taken to writing occasional essays and letters, which I send to elected officials, to the local newspapers, or to various news magazines. Almost without exception, these, like my health-care proposal, have fallen into a void, unanswered and unconsidered.

That is the genesis of this project. If I — a middle-aged white man, educated at an elite prep school and an elite university, former Air Force officer, respected white-collar professional, moderately successful small business owner, concerned and engaged citizen — cannot make myself heard, cannot break through the barriers that separate the governed from the governors and the ordinary citizens from the arbiters of political and cultural mores, then what chance does an ‘average’ citizen have?

There is a serious flaw in the way we, as a nation, search for solutions to the problems which afflict us. There are two-hundred fifty million people in this country. Many of them spend their lives solving problems, at their jobs, within their families, among their friends, out in their communities. Many of them — perhaps most of them — are not terribly skilled or successful at it but the few out of two-hundred fifty million who are successful still provide a vast pool of talented problem-solvers across the country.

Many of those people care about national problems and take the time to think about innovative ways to attack them. Sometimes those ideas take the form of complete integrated solutions; more often, they comprise a single flash of insight or a unique way of looking at the problem. In either case, having come up with such ideas, how do they make themselves heard?

The answer is, they usually can’t — at least not without shouting so long and so loud that their entire lives are consumed by the effort. They can write to their elected representatives but elected representatives are not looking for solutions from constituent mail: they are swamped just dealing with complaints about some government agency, requests for intervention with some other government agency, unhappiness about some piece of legislation, and general paranoia. They can write a letter-to-the-editor but, even if it is published, how can they describe a solution to a complex problem in the two paragraphs available to them? And, since newspapers often seem to reserve half their letter space for people shouting from the extremes, who takes those letters seriously, anyway? They can write a book, if they happen to be writers as well as thinkers, but how do they get it published and who will buy it? They can run for office but many sane people would rather stay sane.

In truth, unless they fall into one of the aforementioned categories of intellectual/political insiders, there is no avenue through which their ideas can travel to the places where policy is formed for a hearing. Instead, we rely on a few self-selected (and self-interested) intellectual authorities to propose sanctioned solutions, and on a few self-selected (and self-interested) political leaders to judge and promote them.

There is a practical problem with allowing ideas to rise unfettered from the uninitiated public: a great many of the uninitiated public are cranks and crackpots. Anyone who has ever listened to a call-in radio show (even on highbrow NPR) or read the letters-to-the-editor in a major newspaper can attest to that; I’m sure any congressional staffer assigned to answer constituent mail would readily concur. But we should not let that discourage us from listening; it should merely motivate us to find an effective way to identify the gemstones among a sea of glass beads.

I challenge our leaders — and in this category I include not just local and national elected representatives but university faculty and administrators, business and union leaders, news organizations, political party organizers, public-interest lobbyists — to find a way to solicit, evaluate, and integrate good ideas from ordinary citizens and to move those ideas into the mainstream of national debate.

Who knows what problems we might solve that way? We might even adopt my plan for health-care reform.

But I won’t hold my breath.

© Copyright 1996, 2005, Augustus P. Lowell

Leave a Reply