Driving Democracy: Rules and Roles

When comedian Jon Stewart hosted his not-quite-mock “Rally to Restore Sanity” in 2010, he ended his non-partisan event with proof that Americans can work together for the good of all. A video showed traffic lines merging, each driver making room for others headed in the same direction. He meant it as a metaphor, but the lessons learned on the road are literally relevant to an active electorate.

Summer driving can teach us how to be better citizens.

Start with anonymity. We assume that nobody on the road knows anything about us, even though we spend most of our time jumping to conclusions about everyone else.

Is somebody sleeping? (They’re taking turns to cover a long distance.) Are clothes hung with hangers on a makeshift pole? (They’re starting a new life.) Is the non-driving half of the couple reading a book? (Their marriage works or they’ve both given up.)

If we have bumper stickers, we look at faces, wondering what they think of whatever it is that our bumper just said to them. Do they also love organics? (Then they should buy a hybrid.) Do they agree about random acts of kindness? (Random lane-changing is not kind.) Do they wonder who Kitty is? (They wouldn’t understand.)

We’re having these one-sided conversations, and they’re doing the same to us. If we stopped and heard their real story, we’d be surprised how much it differs from what we invented in our heads.

Don’t we do essentially the same thing around politics? Every time we hear somebody express their point of view, we’re silently shocked at what makes sense to them. They sounded so much better when we lip-synced them to our own soundtrack!

And yet we’re partners, navigating a complex and dangerous system together. Two rules define highway driving and they sometimes conflict. The speed limit is the first rule, clearly posted and available to all. The rule may be uniform, but the people following it are not. And so there’s a second rule: “Keep right except to pass.”

If one driver is in a hurry, it’s safest for everyone not to judge them, or at least to make room for them to pass — whether you’re judging them or not. My son was almost born on the way to the hospital. My brother actually was. People driving fast sometimes have a very good reason.

If another car approaches from behind, the rules of the road require that you move to the right so they can safely pass on the left. Passing on the right pushes the system from complexity to chaos, imperiling everyone.

Responsible citizenship requires no less attention. As the highway asks us to follow two rules, the government asks us to fulfill two roles. Our complex task requires keeping them in balance.

We’re citizens, and also consumers. We defend democracy, and we promote capitalism. Our votes count. Our dollars count too. Both determine where and how fast we go.

Exiting Governor John Kitzhaber despaired in 2003 that politics had become “overly transactional.” Voters had become shoppers. Deficit spending has ballooned because the U.S. Congress has learned that voters really like “free money.”

Candidates and merchants help themselves by blurring these separate responsibilities. It’s up to us to keep them straight.

Every candidate wants voters to believe that his or her victory will improve their pocketbooks. Pollsters regularly ask if voters believe they are better off than they were four years ago. James Carville famously advised presidential hopeful Bill Clinton on the campaign trail, “It’s the economy, stupid.”

Stores promote “Made in America” if they believe it will boost sales. When President Eisenhower nominated the head of a car company to be his Secretary of Defense, he told Congress, “What’s good for the country is good for General Motors and vice versa.” President George W. Bush asked Americans after September 11th to go shopping, almost as an act of patriotic duty.

Being a satisfied customer and becoming an informed citizen sometimes overlap, but we must not assume they are always the same. Our responsibility to one another is more complex than that. Put into Eugene-ified language, “Follow your bliss, but stay in your lane.”

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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs.