Bullies on the playground

The 2016 election is barely over. The North Dakota Legislature has just begun it’s biennial session with an overwhelming presence of one political party. The super majority in the state capital reminds us that they are in charge. President-elect Trump is fond of saying he “won by a landslide” and both houses of Congress are controlled by the same party. Winning, we often think, is everything. Those who come out on top rule. Everything will change and life will go our way.

Winning might be everything in the short-term. There is a heady, ego boosting, affirmation of the positions a candidate may have championed in the campaign when one side wins and the other side loses. Shouts of “We’re number one!” can make one feel like you are on top of the pile, in charge, and in control.

It might seem that having a super majority in state politics is a good thing which will allow for real change and will enable those enacting legislation on our behalf to really get things done.One party’s control of the US Senate, House and Presidency seems like a good thing, if it’s your party. No one can get in your way.

Having all the power and winning big, however, brings with it a whole lot more.

Having power can make individuals into bullies. British historian, Lord John Acton (1834-1902) wrote, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” The biggest, strongest kid on the playground may strong-arm others and take all the lunch money. The lobbyists with the most money buy political influence. The biggest banks hold the rest of the economy hostage because they will hurt everyone else if they fail. Bullies put their interests above the common good and ignore the voices of reason around them.

Having a disproportionate level of influence in making decisions often stifles other arguments and eliminates discussion. Other voices are not heard and decisions are made without considering all of the “what if’s.”

Having power is a serious and dangerous position to be in. Congress and the President, the Legislature and the Governor are making decisions which affect us all, in this state, this country and abroad.  Refusing to listen to opposing voices or ignoring arguments on the other side of an issue may result in foolhardy decisions. Having power is a big responsibility. No one can see all possibilities by themselves. Debate, dissension, and differing points of view are essential to good government.

Recently, a member of the North Dakota state legislature is reported to have said, “I voted based on my personal belief.” Apparently, he didn’t think he needed to listen to his constituents, legal experts, other legislators or the people most affected by the legislation. His own personal belief was basis enough for his vote.

I once testified before a legislative committee which was controlled by one party. The chair of the committee, rather than listening to the points presented, argued with citizens, and the vice chair of the committee turned his back to the speakers and read an unrelated book. The committee voted by party lines according to the directives of their caucuses and party leaders. Citizen input had no effect. I’ve had a legislator tell me that he needed to consult with his “colleagues” before he could tell me, his constituent, how he would vote on an issue.

Would these things happen if there weren’t an imbalance of power in our great state?

I believe our state and our nation is stronger and healthier when we have a more even balance of power. We need both sides of issues to be heard and considered. We need the influence of money removed from the election process and the halls of the Legislature and of Congress. Humility is hard to maintain with an imbalance of power.

Governance is not a game. Power without checks and balances will not make our country stronger nor our lives better. Winning in politics brings with it great responsibility. We must demand that those who hold power be held to a high standard of decency and compassion, to demand willingness to compromise. We must insist that those who are in power put their own best interests behind the common good.

Copyright © 2017 Janet Jacobson and Sustaining the Northern Plains