Power to the People!

Here’s some good news, in what feels like a dark time for many people. We do have power.

One of the first things we did in our civics classes was to look carefully at the Executive, Legislative and Judicial branches in order to understand their powers and functions, why and how the three branches of government were set up, the interaction and restrictions between them. Checks and balances were set up so that none of the branches would have too much power. We can look to the situation Obama was in as Congress obstructed him, most recently and importantly by refusing to even look at Obama’s choice to fill the vacancy on the Supreme Court.

My students agreed that with elections every four years and campaigns lasting so long, too much attention is put on the president, which leads to misconceptions about who holds the power. My students were surprised by the number of actions the president cannot take. Democracies are set up so that the ultimate power lies with the people.

We live in a complicated system and a complicated world. It isn’t easy to figure it all out, but if we don’t read newspapers, listen to the radio, look at lots of sources, we lose our power. The last election laid bare the misinformation that people have about how the government works and who can fix the problems. The president, no matter who he or she is, cannot fix much in our individual lives. So much is up to us, we the people. We need to know who represents us,  this website is just one of many sources: whoismyrepresentative.com.

The Republicans in Congress are giddy about their power right now, holding majorities in both the House of Representatives and the Senate, along with the White House. There is a lot of chatter about their desires to repeal Obamacare—without any viable plans to replace it, which would take health insurance away from millions of people. Kids in their twenties could not stay on their parents’ plans nor could people get insurance with a pre-existing condition. There is talk about saving those two plans, but without the mandate to buy insurance, those parts are not affordable. They would like to privatize Social Security and Medicare. George W. Bush tried this, but he found little support from the American people. No one knows which side of these issues Trump will finally land on, but for people who are worried about issues important to them—now is the time to exercise our power.

Our elected representatives think about one thing all the time: getting re-elected. I heard a state representative on the radio one day talking about hearing from his constituents. “If I get even one letter on an issue, I pay attention to it.” In Michigan, legislators are term limited. In the House, they can serve three two-year terms. In the Senate, they can serve two four-year terms. House members just get there—and they need to start fund-raising and running for office again, which makes it very important for them to tune in to what their constituents are saying.

Though the Senate is the more powerful body and people serve six-year terms in Washington, people in the House of Representatives serve only two years. The House was designed to be more responsive to the people. That only works if we do our job. As one of my foreign students noted on a particularly contentious day in civics class, “Americans have one great talent, and that is to complain.” I complain when I feel powerless. I think a lot of people feel forgotten and powerless. The good news right now is that people are getting organized and engaged in the system. Here are four ways to put pressure on the people who represent us.


1) Attend Town Halls

Most members of Congress hold regularly scheduled “town hall” meetings, where they meet and listen to their constituents, the people who voted for them. If our elected officials are doing their job, they want to hear from us, so we need to stand up and make our ideas and feelings known on the issues we care about. Our job as constituents is to keep our elected officials accountable. If they try and duck a question or we don’t feel satisfied with the answers, we can tell him or her that we will be spreading the word. Or, we can e-mail or snail mail them. Our attention needs to go to our own representatives. Even though it’s tempting to contact other people, if we aren’t voting for them, they will not care.

2) Non-Town Hall Events

Every member of Congress loves holding public events back home that increase their visibility and provide “photo ops”. We can show up and press the questions about the issues that are important to us.

3) Go to District Offices

Members of Congress and state legislators check in at their district offices to meet constituents, sometimes on a regular basis. Their schedules should be available from the district office staff. We can ask for a meeting with them, prepare good questions and ask them. They have no idea how much influence we may have over others in the district, so if we are a member of a committee or a group, we need to say so. They need to know we will report back to other people. If they won’t meet with us, we can get that word out—with the media or on social media.

4) Coordinate Phone Calls

This method is the cheapest and quickest, and it has the best potential to get the attention of a member of Congress or a state legislature. We can organize a group of people who really care about an issue, say Social Security or the ACA. The more people—the better. We can prepare what to say, and when it is convenient for everyone, make the phone ring off the hook! Staff members might ask for our name and address and are usually very friendly. Terms in office are not permanent, and people usually want to keep their jobs! There is strength in numbers and numbers add up!

Citizens behind bars have very little power, so one of the lessons I wanted to convey was that my students were able to wield some power politically. They did not believe me—initially. Our high school program inside prison had its funding threatened and cut all the time. Our students worried constantly that it would be eliminated. We invited a state representative, a Republican who had been in adult education himself, to visit our Civics class. He was very impressed by the students and encouraged them to write letters. I made it an assignment, telling them they could write to whomever they chose. In a state-wide coordinated effort, we did manage to delay some funding cuts. For a while, our program had a federal literacy grant, and that was threatened too. When three men said they wanted to write to Vice-President Dick Cheney, I balked a little, thinking he would be the last person to support such a program. My students reacted with, “You said we could pick!” I backed down and a group of five men wrote heartfelt letters about how much they valued being in school. The letters went out at the end of the year, pleading with Mr. Cheney not to cut any of the small federal grant we were receiving. I promptly forgot about it.

When I came back to school in September, our program director handed me a large package. Attached to my students’ letters was a page that went right down the line, the “chain of command,” from the vice-president’s office to the attorney general, to the head of the Bureau of Prisons to the regional director, to our warden, to the prison educational office and then…across the hall to our high school office. Except for the local people, everyone of these people had signed off, several of them commenting, “It is obvious how much these men value being in school.” I was shocked—and couldn’t wait to share it with my students. I will never know if Dick Cheney had anything to do with it, but our federal funding stayed in place. Even better, my students felt like they’d been heard.

I know it’s easy to feel like we don’t count and that we are powerless to affect any change. We can expect some confusion and conflict. As Obama says, “Democracy is messy.” Our job is to hold our elected officials’ feet to the fire. If they don’t do their jobs—they can be beaten either in a Democratic or Republican primary or in a general election. People must be informed and we must vote. The system sometimes feels like steering a large ocean liner in a storm, but it works far better when people are aware and make their voices heard. 

One last thing, some wisdom from a few of our Founders:

When the people fear the government, there is tyranny. When the government fears the people, there is liberty.

A little rebellion now and then is a good thing.

—Thomas Jefferson

Make yourself sheep and the wolves will eat you.

—Benjamin Franklin

The circulation of confidence is better than the circulation of money.

—James Madison

Power to the People!