HETRICK: Sitting at the polling place, wishing you were here

If you listen even a little, you’d swear there were two different legislative sessions in 2011.

One session boasts remarkable success.

“With the gavel dropped on the 2011 legislative session, Hoosiers have many reasons to be proud,” said an e-mail from the Indiana Republican Party. “We have a fourth balanced budget that doesn’t raise taxes and sweeping education reforms that increase choice and ensure a great teacher in the front of every classroom.”

The other session was a miserable failure.

“We Hoosiers are in the final stretch of the session from hell,” said an e-mail from a social-policy advocate whose cause met the guillotine. “We gotta stay the course. Good’s bound to prevail again in our lifetimes.”

No matter which side you’re on, the process was the usual sausage factory of charges and counter-charges, midnight machinations, sneak attacks, artful dodges, arm-twisting, backstabbing, brinkmanship and gamesmanship.

The most visible ploy was, of course, the House of Representatives Democrats’ five-week walkout to Urbana, Ill.

But some of the back-room, behind-closed-door deals were equally daring and far more decisive—especially on divisive social policies and reform initiatives.

Thus, a constitutional gay marriage ban was set in motion.

There’s a crackdown on illegal immigrants.

If we’re licensed, we may carry our firearms into most public buildings.

Education reform passed. But local-government reform failed (again).

Planned Parenthood was defunded—a move that was, allegedly, pro-life. Yet the state’s tobacco-cessation agency was eliminated and a smoke-free-workplace law defeated (again)—moves that are, almost certainly, pro-death.

When it comes to legislation, arbiters of logic need not apply. Yet none of this should have come as a surprise.

In the 2008 federal election, one party won the presidency and majorities in the House and Senate. That brought us health-insurance reform, withdrawal of combat troops from Iraq, financial-industry reform and other “liberal” policy changes.

After the 2010 state election, one party held the governor’s office, a super-majority in the state Senate and a strong majority in the state House of Representatives. That brought legislation on gay marriage, abortion, guns, immigration and other “conservative” policy changes.

In short, when voters let candidates of a particular bent have their say, they’re bound to get officeholders who have their way.

What bothers me in the wake of both these elections and the policies that have followed is the invocation of the collective “we.”

“The American people said loudly and clearly they want us to slash the deficit,” a senator will say. Or, “The American people don’t believe in abortion.”

“Hoosier children are the losers,” an opponent of education reform will proclaim. Or, “Hoosiers don’t want government telling us what we can and can’t do.”

In Indiana and the nation, we are not one people of one mind. We rarely, if ever, agree 100 percent that we want or don’t want a particular policy or program. And the wise officeholder will avoid sweeping statements that imply we’re all under the same tent—not to mention presumptuous pronouncements that he or she speaks for all.

The fact is, given low voter turnout in most elections, your average politician speaks not for “the American people” or “Hoosiers everywhere” or “the people of Indianapolis,” but rather, for a majority of the minority who bothered to vote.

Thus, once elected, the voters who pulled a particular candidate’s lever are not synonymous with the constituents that officeholder represents. Nor are the views and desires of the candidates’ voters the only ones that ought to be considered.

But none of this is the candidates’ problem. The quest to be re-elected, the pretense of speaking for all, the pronouncement of majority-backed authority are all possible and practical because of voter ignorance, apathy and complacency.

Public policy is a participatory sport. The fewer among the mainstream masses who play, the more influence the energized, engaged and well-funded fringe factions will have.

Being involved and making an impact don’t have to carry a hefty price tag. While money still buys far too much influence, the proliferation of mass, niche and social media makes it easier than ever to be what The New York Times columnist Tom Friedman calls a “super-empowered individual.”

Now more than ever, it’s easy to get your voice heard, to find like-minded people, to organize behind your cause, and to influence public policy.

If you don’t, someone else will.

Elections have consequences. After all the jeering and cheering produced by the state legislative session that ended April 29, you’d think “Hoosiers everywhere” would get more involved.

But alas, a dismal percentage of eligible voters showed up to vote in the May 3 municipal elections.

Just wait. Come November, the winning candidates in cities statewide, fresh from winning a majority of the minority who bothered to cast ballots, will proclaim, “The people of [insert your city here] said loudly and clearly … .”•


Hetrick is chairman and CEO of Hetrick Communications Inc., an Indianapolis-based public relations and marketing communications firm. His column appears twice a month. He can be reached at bhetrick@ibj.com.

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