Vox populi is Latin for "Voice of the People".
Like most things I know, I learned it in a comic book. (An issue of Batman, if I remember correctly).
Vox populi is an important element of a representational democratic government. We elect our leaders to represent our best interests while conducting the business of governing. Determining what our best interests are cannot be done in isolation; leaders need to listen to the voice of the people to inform their decisions and act accordingly.
This does not mean that an elected official must do exactly what the people say. The people, for example, may demand lower taxes AND also demand more police officers. These are both legitimate expectations: no one wants to pay too much in taxes AND we want our cities and communities to be safe.
However, a political leader, looking at the budget, realizes what connects these two very understandable requests is not the word AND; it's the word OR. He or she cuts taxes and there's less money for more police officers or some officers may need to be let go. On the other hand, for more police officers to be hired, taxes cannot be cut or may even have to be raised. So vox populi declares less taxes AND more safety. The elected leader knows the reality is less taxes OR more safety.
What to do? What to do?
Being a leader in government is not easy. There are important points to consider.
- Being a leader means working to maintain or increase the success and viability of a community, city, state or nation.
- Being a leader means making the tough choices to do what is best for that area of responsibility.
- Being a leader means taking your case to the people so they will know what the choices were and why a particular course of action was taken.
All perfectly fair. All perfectly civilized. All perfectly democratic.
On Wednesday, April 17th, 2013, I saw the most willful disregard for vox populi by an elected body as I have ever seen. The US Senate failed to pass a gun control measure that would have expanded background checks for gun buyers.
What were we hearing from the voice of the people before that vote? Polls showed 93% of Americans supported an expansion of background checks for those who buy guns. That number is too large to just be "peace loving left leaning gun haters". No, this number involved a broad spectrum of support from a variety of groups including gun owners.
I believe with all my heart that the average American is a good, honest, law abiding citizen and if they want to buy a gun, well, they have nothing to hide. And if it means having to wait a few days for someone to confirm that someone is, in fact, a good, honest law abiding citizen, that's a small price to pay to help put up one more barrier that may keep some homicidal nut case from getting his gun and doing something bad, I don't know, just to pick an outlandish example off the top of my head, maybe shoot a bunch of kids and teachers at a elementary school.
There are so many things we have to do to prove ourselves trustworthy to be hired for a job, to be approved for a loan, to keep an automobile on the road. But we're talking about a gun, literally a metal device capable of propelling a smaller piece of metal at an incredible speed with the express purpose of doing either serious damage or causing death. Should not the procurement of such a thing be subject to scrutiny? Isn't in the best interests of the people to strengthen whatever safeguards we can devise to protect an average American from being shot to death while, I don't know, let me draw another crazy example out of thin air, watching a movie in a theater?
93% of Americans think maybe it would be a good idea to ask a few more questions, probe a bit deeper to make sure the person buying that gun is not setting out to shed innocent blood in the next Aurora. Or Newtown. We need to protect innocents, proclaims vox populi; we need to protect children. Do something.
The US Senate made a different choice: do nothing.
What happened? The US Senate chose to reject something that the voice of the people was making most clear was wanted..no, needed! How? Why?
Well, it's easy to blame the NRA and by all means, let's blame them because they damn well deserve it. The NRA has a LOT of cash to burn and baby, did they let it burn. Money talks louder than vox populi and money feeds the kitty, not the voice of the people. And the NRA never met a gun regulation that it wasn't ready to proclaim was an affront to decency and freedom and the American way.
It helps to realize that the NRA is supposed to represent gun owners but the real clients, the ones with the money to give to the NRA, are the gun manufacturers. It is their goal to make sure there are no impediments to any market for the wares they make and sell. There should be no obstacles for a man to buy a rifle and take his son hunting. There should be no restrictions on an housewife to purchase a hand gun to defend herself against an intruder. And if somebody misuses guns and takes the life of innocents, that's just the price we pay to live in a free society. The answer is to arm more people so we can protect ourselves from the evil people with guns. How convenient that it is also a perfect solution to boost the manufacturing and the selling of guns.
But another culprit in Wednesday's shameful debacle is the political process that has been shaped over the last decade or more. Yes, 93% of Americans supported an expansion of background checks for gun purchases. But each Senator who cast their "no" vote against the measure was unconcerned with that number. Their eyes were on their next primary in their home state. Not the statewide election but the primary. Because it's in the primary where the true danger lies for a politician seeking re-election, from within their own party.
Particularly for the Republicans where groups like the Tea Party movement have demanded ever more strict adherence to the most extreme of right wing conservative thought. The most damaging litmus test for conservative purity is, "Did you ever vote for anything Barack Obama wanted?" If Obama said the sky was blue and you agreed, yes, the sky is blue, you are immediately in the crosshairs of so-called "conservative purists" who are looking to unseat you in the next primary. These candidates are strongly backed by very
The truth is the Obama administration has done distressingly little to further any agenda for gun control, even in the aftermath of the Aurora movie theater shootings last summer. It took the slaughter of children at Sandy Hook Elementary to get the Obama White House seriously engaged in a effort to curb gun violence.
The voice of the people in the aftermath of that most terrible Friday in December was deafening and choked with the tears of sorrow and rage: No more! How many more times to do we need to see on the news that another maniac has decided to drown his madness in the blood of the innocent? The blood of children? No more! Do something, vox populi demanded, do something real and lasting and effective and do it NOW!
The wheels of the Washington political machinery grind slowly but they turned they did and it looked like the voice of the people had been heard and something would, at last, be done.
A week after the Newtown tragedy, Wayne LaPierre of the NRA gave a statement to the press that was ludicrous in the degree it was tone deaf to the shock and grieving of the nation. The answer to gun violence, LaPierre said, was more guns. It could have been almost laughable, LaPierre still clinging to his misguided and outdated arguments. No, vox populi would carry the day, not Wayne LaPierre or the NRA, not the Tea Party and the Obama-Haters. This was not an issue about Obama, it was not an issue of right wing versus left. It was about protecting innocents, protecting children.
Somewhere on April 17th, I'm sure Wayne LaPierre was working the troops, congragulating them on a job well done.
And mothers and fathers could only weep once more for their lost sons and daughters.
Make no mistake: the history of American politics, from cities to states to the nation's capital, is littered with deals made in the name of something other than the voice of the people. Back room deals have bought a lot of votes over the years. But these deals were in the back room and sometimes served to grease the wheels of the work actually done in the name of the people. Things got done.
Yesterday, politics trumped the voice of the people and there was no pretense of a back room. Texas Senator Ted Cruz said he objected to the background check measure on the grounds it could lead to a national gun registry. The bi-partisan creators of the measure had explicitly included language in the measure to prohibit the creation of such a registry and included penalties if anyone tried to do that. But Ted Cruz wouldn't back down, insisting this background check proposal would lead to the Federal government watching over ALL gun owners. Ted Cruz is looking to his next primary; they'll eat this stuff up then. It will drive the party faithful into a frenzy to send Cruz back to Washington.
And to hell with vox populi.
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