Making a Difference

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Wednesday, September 13, 2000
The recent reports of the federal government’s efforts to improve food labeling of trans fats reminded me of an incident many years ago. Shortly after I’d been elected to Congress from my district in southern Indiana, a neighbor of mine crossed the street and knocked on my door. I didn’t know the man very well, just enough to stop and chat briefly as our paths crossed from time to time, but now he had something significant to say. 

He was, he told me, a diabetic. And he was flummoxed by the packaged food he tried to buy at the grocery store: He had no idea what was actually in it. This was the mid-1960s; food manufacturers didn’t have to label what they put in their products. “I go to the supermarket and I simply don’t know what’s in those packages,” he said. “I want you to do something about labeling.” I told him I’d look into it. 

Many people would have stopped right there, figuring they’d gotten the attention of someone in a position to do something; fortunately, my neighbor knew that wasn’t enough. He talked the issue up in the community, spent his lunches and evenings giving talks to service clubs, visited and wrote letters to all sorts of politicians– members of the county commission, state legislators in Indianapolis, other members of Congress. Over time, thanks to his efforts and those of a lot of other people who were of similar mind, the issue blossomed and consumers now have meaningful labels on the food they buy. 

We forget sometimes that this is the base the U.S. Congress rests on. Congress is the most important link between the American people and their national government, the institution whose job it is to take up the many and diverse views and needs of the American people and to address them. But it can’t operate– at least, not legitimately– without Americans’ involvement. For Congress to do its job properly, ordinary citizens must engage it, as my old neighbor once did. And that’s not happening to anywhere near the degree it should. 

I don’t want to bore you with a lot of statistics, so let me just put it this way: Almost any way you want to measure political participation– from voting to following the daily news to working for a political campaign to joining groups interested in better government to turning out at elected officials’ town meetings to writing letters to Congress– our participation is down. 

There are a lot of reasons for this, and some of them are beyond our immediate control– an economy that requires both parents in many families to work, a sprawling pattern of growth that shifts time from the community to the commute– but there’s only one antidote I know of, and that is, quite simply, to get involved. Because at its heart, I think, the problem is one of attitude: If you believe you can make a difference, you’ll make the effort. And if you haven’t been involved in civic life, then the only way to prove to yourself that it matters is to go ahead and join in. 

The easiest way to get started is to look around, find a problem that needs addressing– every community has them– and go to it. Maybe a railroad crossing down the road needs a signal, or you find there are children in your town who go to bed hungry at night. Whatever it is, there are tangible, immediate ways you can have an impact. No one knows your community and its needs better than you do. 

Fine, you say, but that’s different from Congress; Washington doesn’t pay attention to ordinary citizens. 

That’s where you’re wrong. At a minimum, if you’re over 18 and an American citizen, you have a vote. People running for Congress want that vote, and they work hard to get it– so turn out for a political event and start asking questions. 

Just as important, in our country you gain clout by joining hands with people of like minds. Maybe that means joining an organization that reflects what you want to accomplish. Or maybe it means persuading others to help you out: Giving speeches at service clubs, organizing a petition drive, writing a letter to the editor of your local paper. If you’ve never done it, you’ll be surprised at how many people pay attention. 

The fact is, it’s just not that difficult. There are scores of websites out there these days filled with ideas and information. The same goes for your church, your children’s school, your local newspaper, your local civic organizations– the opportunities are endless. Our country depends on our involvement. What’s holding you back? 

(Lee Hamilton is Director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.)