Tuesday, May 16, 2017

The "Big Checkout" - How We Justify Disengagement

In modern American discourse, the word "Big" has become a pejorative.  "Big Pharma" "Big Banks" "Big Business" "Big Media" and let's not forget "Big Government".  America is the most affluent and powerful nation in human history; but is the down-side that everything is so bigly big that individuals feel hopelessly powerless?  And, if so, what do we do about it?

These big institutions are the culminations of decades of success, built brick by brick and year after year, on the principle that growth is always good and more is always better.  Bigness have given us more choice and more availability of practically anything we could want or need at any time, day or night.  And that's a good thing.  But...

"Bigness" creates a unique dynamic between the "big thing" and those under its influence, and it can be most easily observed in the world of cable TV providers.  Nobody really likes them.  Nobody's very satisfied with their costs, options, or service level.  Yet most of us remain customers, because there really is no comparable option or alternative.  Customers are trapped.  So, even though the cable companies continue to have huge customer bases (and profits), the relationship is not a cheerful one.  As a result, customers just hold their nose and disengage, always watching for some alternative.

Examples of this are literally everywhere around us.  In retail, the airlines, in media, and - yes - in politics.  And this ever-present passive-aggressive semi-surrender mindset of the average person in daily interactions, that are are needed but wholly unsatisfactory, is something that has polluted our attitudes toward political engagement in an extremely damaging way.

I view it as a cycle.  It's hard to figure out exactly where it starts, because it feeds on itself.
  • Politicians lie
  • People are cynical about politicians
  • People disregard what they are saying and doing
  • Politicians get to do things without the voters paying attention
  • Companies and interests get to influence politics without accountability
  • Things get worse for individuals, better for the interests
  • We don't have context to understand anymore, so we have to rely on the politicians to explain it
  • Politicians need to get re-elected
  • Repeat...
It's this cycle of dissatisfaction and codependency that repeats until we find ourselves completely detached from the process we actually own.  And just like the cable company, we hold our noses and disengage, always watching for some alternative.  We rant about it, but don't take any accountability.  We forget that governing doesn't just happen in an election year.  We've reduced our role in the democratic process to a single act on a single day.  And when we DO engage, we are either low information voters or we're just too disgusted to vote at all.  

There are only two ways to deal with an unspeakable mess: you can light it on fire and walk away (tempting), or put on a mask and grab a shovel (unpleasant and exhausting).  I get why a lot of people, frustrated by the unspeakable mess of "big government," would rather choose the first option. In fact, I think that really describes what this last election was about for many.  But, while it may have felt gratifying, it doesn't fix anything.  We've got to grab our shovels.  We've got to wade into the mess we helped create and clean it up.  And we've got to stick with it to keep it clean.  We can't merely leave it for once every four years.  

If you want to take on the "Bigs" of this world, you've got to start small.  Ask questions, talk to local officials, attend a city council meeting or a school board meeting, attend a party meeting in your local district.  Find out what the reality is on the ground right around you.  Then get your shovel.    If you're already engaged, then it's your job to show people that small things and small steps make a difference.  There are a lot more of us than there are of them.

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