The First Say — why you don’t know you don’t have it

by Charles Hymes

Every parent knows this trick (that sometimes works): if your four-year-old doesn’t want to go to bed, ask her whether she wants to sleep with her little brown bear or with Dora, her baby doll. Understanding that the decision is hers, she’ll grab either the bear or Dora and then go to bed, satisfied that she had her say.

Every few years citizens go to the polls, cast their votes for one of the candidates on the ballot, and go home satisfied that they exercised their civic duty and had their say.

What are the parallels?

In the first case, both the parents and the daughter had a say. The parents had the first say about an issue they care about (bedtime), leaving the daughter with the second say about an issue (bear vs doll) that hadn’t already been decided by her parents.

Similarly, voters have the second say when they go to the polls and cast a vote for one of the candidates on the ballet. Like the daughter, voters have their say only about issues that haven’t already been decided by those with the first say. Who has the first say? On which issues?

The first say belongs to those who participate in the nomination process — the people, corporations and other entities that wield relatively large amounts of money in support of candidates who they believe will represent their interests. More financial support equals more say. As a result of this nomination process, candidates that appear on the ballot will hold positions on particular issues that reflect the key interests of their financial supporters.

Do voters get a say on any of these issues that are of particular concern to the financial supporters of candidates? If candidates disagree with each other on one of these issues, then the answer is ‘yes’. Candidates will debate the issue, the media will report the debate and the general public becomes more aware of the issue. Eligible voters then have second and final say on the issue when they vote for a candidate that holds their preferred position. (When the parents disagree on whether to eat at home or go out for pizza, the daughter enthusiastically supports the pizza option and they end up going out.)

But what happens when all the candidates on a ballot hold a similar position on an issue because of similar interests among their financial supporters (which is fairly common because their wealthy supporters often have common economic interests)?

Silence. There is no secret or conspiracy. The candidates simply have nothing to debate, and news sources have nothing to report. As a result, when one of these candidates is eventually elected and becomes a public official, the general public may not be aware of the elected official’s positions on particular issues that are important to his or her financial supporters — just as the daughter (in the beginning) is not aware that a specific bedtime had been set for her.

But once in a while, the public feels a pressing need and raises its voice. That’s when elected officials acknowledge the outcry, briefly discuss the issue and then do nothing if at all possible — because the outcry goes against the interests of those with the first say.

And the daughter’s bedtime remains the same.

© 2015 The Citizen Input Project

Charles Hymes is the President and Cofounder of the Citizen Input Project. Follow him on Twitter at @cmhymes.

Follow the Citizen Input Project on Twitter at @Citizinput.

Originally published on the Citizen Input Project blog.

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