Good government is not entertainment
Cultural critic Neil Postman wrote thirty five years ago, "When a culture becomes distracted by trivia; when political and social life are redefined as a perpetual round of entertainments; when a people become, in short, an audience, and their public business a vaudeville act, then (Aldous) Huxley argued – a nation finds itself at risk and culture-death is a clear possibility."
The Huxleyan type of culture as burlesque is becoming more and more the reality in America. Entertainment-oriented politics resplendent with actors; game show host politicians and debate floorshows are beyond dim-witted and obtuse. Argument on the subject is unnecessary. When running for president becomes a cabaret, presidential political debates live entertainment and candidates themselves slapstick jesters — they mock everything that Jefferson, Madison, Franklin, Adams, Washington, Hamilton, and the rest believed in and stood for.
How has this happened? How could we the people become so distracted from the demands of a healthy democracy and active participation in citizenship? It happened first and foremost because we were unwilling 40 years ago to walk across the living room floor and switch off the television set. It got worse rather than better when we elected leaders who were vague, obfuscated facts, learned the power of sound bites and just had to look presidential and appealing to the camera. It happened when Presidents no longer had to present themselves before the press for bi-weekly news briefings. It happened further when the press became owned and controlled by six or so major corporations that dictate what the agenda will be for what we see and hear. Americans are among the least informed populations in the world despite our advanced technologies because we have welcomed and embraced entertainment as a way of life. In the United States, "Bread and Circuses" (panem et circenses) has become more highly valued than freedom and democracy with the responsibility that each demands.
This is broadly true outside the experience of being a member of the General Assembly in Vermont. Montpelier, I have found, has virtually no entertainment value for the legislative insider. We may be hilarious to non-legislators but even there I think we fall short. There is more comedy/tragedy going on in other states. Heck, we can't even decriminalize having two homegrown marijuana plants — where's the entertainment value there?
We spent the last month of this legislative session almost unanimously agreeing in the House of Representatives that medical cannabis is more important an issue than recreational cannabis use. I only heard from one person that dispensaries should be given greater support to attend to the needs of the suffering so they can receive cannabis for pain relief symptoms more easily. This compared with dozens equally divided support for or against legalization. S.14 was worked and reworked over tens of hours in our House Human Services Committee with improvements to our dispensary program. It was not in the least an attention grabber but, as referenced, it passed by a huge margin. The House also passed a bill that made it possible for Vermonters to register as voters when they apply for their driver's license. Not a big deal – until you consider how some states are making it more difficult for individuals to register to vote. Did you know that legislators agreed to have underserved or unserved Vermonters get better access to dental care by beginning a program for Dental Therapists (S. 20)? Did you know the cost savings to the state is projected to be in the millions of dollars? That came out of our committee, too. How much press did that get? Our HHS committee also passed Act H.112 an act relating to access to financial records in adult protective service investigations. In total our tri-partisan committee passed eighteen bills out including H.171 E-cigarettes, H.74 Safety Protocols, S. 189 Foster Parents, S.66 Deaf and Hard of Hearing, S.243 Opiate Abuse, H.93 Tobacco Age, H.622 Mandated Reporters and others. Don't imagine that many Vermonters saw headlines or heard much on any of those bills. Neither, do people see that these policies are cost savers that project in the multiple millions of dollars. They all passed out of our committee generally by a margin of 10-0-1, 11-0-0, 9-1-1, and once or twice by 8-3-0 and are on their way to becoming law.
Indeed we did things this year that were not national news and were far from entertainment. We passed an act that guarantees that a qualified employee can earn paid sick leave up to three days per year. We made this a jubilee year for women and men who had their driving privileges taken away because they could not afford to pay old traffic tickets. We also helped those who had been incarcerated and had served their sentences by giving them a more even playing field at the start of the hiring process.
Typically, compassion doesn't make news. In Vermont it is part and parcel of governing the just way. The Vermont Legislature this year (as in other years) looked at the facts and tried to ameliorate the conditions of those who suffer and those who have fallen through the cracks. This year some funds were restored for Weatherization; while some dollars were placed back into the Reach-Up program,dollars that we didn't have last year. The Parent- Child Centers were given a boost after well more than a decade, which was far longer than it should have been to place resources into this necessary state asset - creating healthier children and families. These are areas that I help work on legislation. Again, none of this focus receives headlines.
One of the bills from our HHS committee, which had passed on the floor of the House and was met with a few objections in debate we brought back to committee, took further testimony and reworked the bill making it better. This happened after it was already passed. How often does that happen? Where else does that happen? I don't know. What I do know is that the legislative class of 2014 - 2016 held to the 2014 New England Patriots motto - "do your job."
Vermonters can be creative and visionary or practical and grounded. Still, compared to the rest of the nation we are pretty dull. The bumper sticker that says something to the affect that "Vermont: What happens here stays in here – but nothing happens here" is more accurate than not. Storyteller Willem Lange describes bucolic Vermont as "boring." Indeed we tend to be that way. However, when it comes to the law-making process our work is often intense and the hours long, particularly at the end of session. The reward? The work is meaningful and that in a nutshell is the immeasurably gratifying pay-off. That — and working with great people.
My experience has taught me that good government isn't about putting on a good show. It is about rigorous study, reflection, research, listening, learning and engagement in creative discourse. Good government is about critical thinking, looking at facts, righting wrongs and being attentive to the wellness of the whole not the welfare of the few. Good government is about seeking to maintain integrity in the face of convenience or adversity.
A healthy democracy is not vaudeville. A healthy democracy does what we do – pass a budget and a tax bill and a fee bill that we need to pay to live in our beautiful state. I am grateful to be a part of it. I am grateful to be on a committee that does exceptionally good work with pride and helps the most vulnerable among us. I have admiration and great respect for most of my colleagues and will miss those legislators who are not returning: trusted Republican leaders Patti Komline and Carolyn Branagan and trusted Democratic leaders Shap Smith, Tim Jerman among them. Still, I have every confidence that despite their departures legislators will seek to do their best for Vermonters. The carnival world of "Little Marco," "Trustworthy" Ted, and "The Donald" Drumpf will hopefully be forgotten by this time next year. But even if they are not, the Vermont Citizens Legislature will keep on doing the job they have been doing for a few centuries, which is working to help the Green Mountain State flourish without fanfare.
Steven Berry is a state representative to the Legislature from the district which includes Manchester, Arlington, Sunderland and Sandgate.
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