June 05, 2017

Nothing like the real thing

During the worst crisis in American history, President Abraham Lincoln made time regularly to talk with and listen to all varieties of ordinary citizens. He understood that success in leading a democracy required an understanding of public opinion and the only way to get that was unfiltered contact with the public.

That meant spending time with uninvited visitors, singly or in groups and ranging from office seekers to petitioners to ordinary people to cranks. Lincoln called these occasions his "public-opinion baths" and viewed them as critical to his ability to govern.

As he told a Union officer, "I feel, though the tax on my time is heavy, no hours of my day are better employed than those which thus bring me again within the direct contact and atmosphere of our whole people. Men moving only in an official circle are apt to become merely official, not to say arbitrary, in their ideas, and are apter and apter, with each passing day, to forget that they only hold power in a representative capacity."

Lincoln admitted that many of the concerns brought to him were utterly frivolous and others were more or less important, but he believed that "all serve to renew in me a clearer and more vivid image of that great popular assemblage, out of which I sprang, and to which I must return."

It was his way of keeping it real.

Unfortunately in today's political climate it's all too easy for political leaders to insulate themselves from their constituents, just as it's easy for us ordinary citizens to live in media bubbles where we stay in our political comfort zones.

For a democracy to work well, there's no substitute for direct contact. That's the only way that real connections can be made between citizens and their representatives. And it's the only way for representatives to understand the concerns of real people. And there's no more direct way for that to happen than by open and unscripted public meetings.

In this day and age, that may take a little political courage. But that's what leadership is all about.

There's no partisan monopoly on this. In March, after some occasionally tense pressure from citizens, Sen. Joe Manchin held four wide-open events from the eastern panhandle to Huntington. It wasn't always a love feast. He took heat from those who disagreed with some of his votes, but there was also a chance for honest give and take on the issues.

New Jersey Republican Congressman Tom MacArthur recently endured a mostly hostile five hour meeting with constituents, many of whom were angered by his vote to replace the Affordable Care Act with the Trump supported replacement.

Love him or not, at least he had the courage to show up and take it.

These days, you get points for showing up.

Whatever their political views, West Virginians deserve representatives and candidates who have the willingness and courage to show up for face-to-face meetings with those they represent.

Everybody needs a good bath every now and then.

(This appeared as an op-ed in Sunday's Huntington Herald-Dispatch.)