The Noise of Democracy

The CSAC offices are located exactly one block north of the State Capitol, perfectly positioned to observe that hallmark of American democracy – the political rally. Many of them occur on the north steps of the Capitol—a long chip shot from the side door of the CSAC building. Today’s issue was health care – with those gathered arguing for a single-payer health care system in California.

As a reporter in the earlier part of my career, I covered dozens of political rallies at the Capitol. Some of them came complete with drum circles, people dressed up as endangered animals or hundreds of headstones erected on the Capitol grounds representing those killed by drunk drivers. That we can gather at our public institutions to address our government, to complain about it and to ask it for what we want is the cornerstone of this 236 year old experiment we call the United States of America. But seriously, some of the rallies I covered and even some I have seen more recently were held when the Legislature was not even in session. So I mean absolutely no disrespect when I ask – who is really listening? Are these people having any impact?

I ask that question now, because, as a reporter, I also had the chance to ask it of previous legislators and governors. Universally they said of course they care about their constituents and I believe them. But that’s not the same thing as reacting to a political rally. And while the smoke-filled rooms and “napkin deals” of the past are less common today, decisions at the Capitol are often made well before an issue gets to the “Rally on the North Steps” stage.

Most of CSAC’s lobbyists and analysts have been on the job for a long time. They know the issues, they know the people and they know the process. Anybody can show up at a hearing and offer an opinion on a specific bill. Anybody can organize a rally at the Capitol. Both of those activities have their place in the process. But it takes experience, trust and credibility to get a seat at the table where the bill is actually being written. That’s why CSAC’s role is so important. Drum circles may get attention, but it takes more than noise to get results.

About: Gregg Fishman:
Gregg Fishman is the Communications Coordinator for the California State Association of Counties.

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