Tonight President Obama and Governor Romney will meet in their second debate. In three weeks we will cast our votes, mock CNN’s newest piece of election-night technology, and watch the numbers come in as polls close in one state after another. Since I live in Washington, I will come home to my mail-in ballot one of these days after work. Election season has been roaring for almost a year now, Facebook is a mess of political fighting, and everyone I know has declared their candidate. We erupt into political passion every four years, fighting to ensure the right person is taking the lead of our country, but it is time we stop caring so much about the President.
We commonly call the President the most powerful man in the world: he makes and breaks our economy, controls our social services, and ensures the continuation of our liberties, right? Not so right. The Presidency is an important position in our government, but it is a position that takes too large a share of the blame, and far too much of the glory when it comes to our federal policy.
So many of the issues brought up in political speeches and debates so far have been issues outside of the President’s span of control (btw, nerd alert using emergency management terms in everything I do). We get angry about spending cuts, the lack of a budget, our downgraded credit rating, and we blame the president. We ask the candidates about their opinions on abortion, religious rights, and marriage equality, and believe that policy will automatically reflect their ideals. It’s not that the President and his opinions, positions and beliefs don’t matter, but rather that there are a lot of people whose positions affect you more directly that we don’t even bother to get to know.
Many Americans don’t know who their congressmen are. And though satisfaction ratings of congress are extremely low (it has been as low as 10% recently) people also tend to believe that it’s their representative who is good and the rest who are bad. Incumbents are regularly re-elected. And that’s at a federal level. At the state level, even fewer people know what district they are in, let alone who represents them. There is a tendency to vote based on incumbancy, party, or the sound of a persons name, rather than voting record, public comments, or personal beliefs.
And yet it is within the two chambers at the federal and state level that most of the decisions we care most about are being made. This is where the federal budget is approved or stalls, causing the collapse of a credit rating. The state legislators are the ones most eagerly trying to pass laws that require ultrasounds prior to abortions, or that extend the privileges of marriage to same-sex couples. They are also the folks making the decisions that really matter about funding for schools, roads, and social services–in short, they decide the quality of life and safety nets in your state alone. We pay taxes to two entities, but we put very little thought into who we select to allocate those tax dollars.
The Presidency is an important race, but it’s not THE important race. And it might not even be the most important race. The ballot is not simply a place for you to select the head of this country, but a place for you to pick the person most in line with your interests, needs, and beliefs. The President is just never going to be this — with 300 million citizens, the U.S. will never have a universally beloved President. He will never fulfill all your dreams, represent all your beliefs, and make all your wishes come true. But senators and representatives both federally, and more importantly, locally, have a greater role in that regard. Your state legislators are the closest you get to an at home representative. You’re allowed to call them directly; it’s their duty to accept your attempts to make meetings with them, and to listen to their constituents. And the penalty for not doing so should be losing their jobs.
Take the time to think hard about the Presidency and who you want to lead your country. Then vote. But let’s stop stopping there. In these last few weeks, take the time to look down ticket. Is your representative a roadkill democrat you’ve been voting for because of the D after his name? Is your senator failing repeatedly to accept cuts that would help your state reach a balanced budget, and you’d oppose her if you only knew her name? If you want a democracy that represents the people, it’s time we start thinking about who we assign to take on that role.
Megan is really into voting and still uses her first voter registration card as a page marker in her dictionary. Also, apparently Megan is pretty old fashioned and still uses a dictionary. Internet who?