This thing called Democracy — What is it?
An average American’s take on this tradition we love
“Good morning — you’ve reached Congresswoman Jackie Speier’s office. This is Jennifer speaking. How may I help you?”
The year was 2010 and I was in the second week of my high school summer internship answering phone calls for California’s District-14 House of Representative. By then, my duties had become clockwork:
Sit at one of two phone operation desks. Answer the phone when someone calls. Do it immediately — preferably before the other intern, and never after the second ring. Transcribe the message as best I can in pen and paper. Email message to a staffer, who would, at a later time, summarize the day’s feedback in a memo for the Congresswoman to review as part of her daily roundup binder.
Sounds easy enough — minus the fact that I had absolutely no idea what I was doing. What came after my robotic intro was as good as anyone’s guess. Great calls involved something like a gracious constituent who wanted nothing more than to thank the Congresswoman for voting a certain way on bill XYZ. Questionable calls involved a muffled receiver and several requests for a caller to repeat her name spelling for me so I could document correct constituent information. Bad calls involved having to hang up on Marvin*, the token crazy-man who was infamous in the office for his frequent claims about the world’s utter disregard for the impending apocalypse. (*- name changed to protect a fellow American’s privacy and right to fear the end of the world)
The beauty of the job was that I got to be at the frontline of democracy-in-action, fielding any and all topics while being an expert in none.
It was an awesome responsibility for a high schooler who was inspired by the veneer of democracy even though she wasn’t old enough to legally participate* in one (* vote). Indeed, my slight insecurity at my political incompetence was quickly assuaged by the fact that most callers didn’t care* ( *didn’t care to know*) who was at the end of the other line. Sometimes, people just want to be heard and heard they are on a daily basis by 535 Senate and House of Representative offices — though chances are most of the listeners are high school to grad school-aged interns.
My stint in Congressional call center operations continued mostly without hiccup until a woman asked me for my opinion on H.R. 1092 one day. Since I knew a whopping nothing about H.R. 1092, I told her I’d refer her to my colleague who was the resident expert (read: an actual full time staffer) on that topic. She was livid and not willing to let me off the hook that easily.
“How do you not have any opinions on such an important issue? Who am I talking to?”
“My apologies ma’am, I’m just an intern. Let me connect you with Bob who can answer your question.”
Her concern was valid. But this is what “getting involved in politics” looks like in its most basic non-election-year form, and it’s the way things have always been done. Never mind the fact people don’t even use their phones to call anymore. If you’re part of the small percentage of constituents who actually do call (you go, reader!), an intern is whom you’ll most likely get.
All those messages for people to finally pick up the phone and call their Congressional reps after November 2016? This is the other part of the story that you don’t hear a lot about.
So… If Congress’ daily constituent feedback comes mostly through the grapevine, what DO they do on a daily basis?
When I went to Washington D.C. four years after this internship, I discovered that Congress does do stuff. The best metaphor I can think of to describe an outsider’s impression of the nation’s capitol is that it’s a huge alphabet soup, and new bills (named by a combo of letters and numbers) materialize frequently. In fact, D.C. is an incredibly small city where everyone knows everyone, and everyone knows everything about S. 207, or H.R. 127, or whatever the latest bill is. In D.C., it doesn’t matter if you work for a nonprofit or as the director at the White House, everyone is connected to everyone by a network of listservs so news about America’s laws and their impact travel fast.
As an idealistic and impressionistic intern, this was extremely inspiring to me… until I realized that I come from California, the state with the largest population in the U.S and 6th largest economy in the world. Back there, no one knows anything about what the government is doing (myself included). It was cool being able to recognize laws by letter-number combo for two months, but I knew these were political jargon I would quickly become indifferent to when I returned to my normal life outside the Capitol bubble.
In November 2016, America was jolted awake from a complacent slumber and the nation collectively realized a few things including:
- Voting does matter
- The personal is political
- Never take stability and sanity for granted — these are collectively achieved and must be maintained, again and again
- Stability, in all shapes and forms, is in itself is yet another privilege that is unequally distributed
Something that I, along with many people have been wondering, is: Do our democratic institutions and processes still work? If so, how do we make them more relevant so we’re more accountable to our social contract — upholding our nation’s values for everyone?
Specifically, what are Americans’ civic engagement preferences in 2017? How do we modernize democratic channels for the 21st century?
My friends and I created a survey to learn more, and I’d love to get your input on this.
Please fill out this~*anonymous survey*~ on this topic, then subscribe to hear about the results if you like!