by Harold Suire
Editor’s Note: In 1995, the Council for a Better Louisiana issued a report on the political sentiments of the Louisiana electorate. The study, titled The People’s Agenda, became a rallying point for many elections that year and grassroots efforts at ethics reforms in the years that followed.There is a discussion going on in America today about giving ordinary citizens a greater role in the political process.
Depending on whose terminology you choose, it’s about “reinventing citizenship,” “re-connecting voters” or having “national conversations to replace drive-by debate.”
Few would argue that such discussions are not good, particularly when public opinion surveys indicate that citizens feel shut out and left behind by the political system—powerless to enact real change, when in a democracy, they theoretically hold the power.
It’s a troubling irony. “If the people will lead,” the bumper sticker says, “the leaders will follow.” Or as Abraham Lincoln said back in 1858, “With public sentiment, nothing can fail; without it, nothing can succeed.” But how do you make people feel like they’re really part of the process?
Unfortunately, much of this healthy discussion is taking place too far from where the rubber meets the road: in think tanks, and institutes; within intellectual journals and inside the walls of academia. A long way from Main Street, the drug store, or the lunch counter, and certainly not within political campaigns or the halls of government. It’s a shame.
This year, though, the Council for A Better Louisiana (CABL) decided it would be worthwhile to put some of these theories about citizen involvement into practice. What if there was some way to turn the tables this election year, and instead of giving the political campaigns a free hand to shape the issues -give citizens a voice?
CABL’s approach was to conduct a comprehensive survey of public opinions and attitudes. Instead of giving voters a multiple choice of issues and letting them pick and choose among someone else’s priorities, CABL posed a simple question: If you could set an agenda of the most important issues that need to be addressed to move Louisiana forward, what would they be? We’re not going to tell you—you tell us.
The results surprised some, as did the level of frustration voters are feeling with the political system in Louisiana. Voters didn’t name the emotional issues that always make the headlines as their priorities. They chose substantive issues: improving education, preventing crime, working on our economy. But pervading everything was a strong message that voters felt Louisiana’s political system was corrupt, many public officials were looking after their own self-interests rather than the public interest.
There’s an elitist attitude that says average voters aren’t really equipped to comment on the weighty issues facing our state. But CABL’s research indicated otherwise, and the verbatim responses we received from voters were profound in their simplicity. When asked what they were looking for in a governor they were explicit:
“I like a truthful person.” “He would do the best for the state, not his own special interests.” “I would like to hear him say that he will represent the people and not profit from it.”
But how do you turn tired hopes into realistic expectations? The nonpartisan National Issues Forum suggests it’s by giving people a stake in the outcome: “Citizens should be active participants in determining their common interests and setting their political agendas.”
CABL agreed. We used the rich information gathered from months of listening to citizens and assembled something we believe was truly The People’s Agenda. The name said it all. It was an agenda devised by voters, focusing on the issues voters themselves said were most important. In the months that followed, CABL acted as a facilitator for a statewide dialogue between citizens and candidates. The state’s news media publicized The People’s Agenda and candidates responded, frequently incorporating large parts of that agenda into their platforms.
Ethics reforms, which were at the very heart of The People’s Agenda, became the cornerstone of countless campaigns, but it didn’t stop there. CABL asked every candidate for governor and legislative office to actually address the issues in The People’s Agenda. Their responses to detailed questionnaires were then made available to the press and the public, and reliable information about candidate positions on important issues began to spread across Louisiana. Thousands of voters—from Amite to Zachary—called a People’s Agenda toll-free number requesting this information. Grassroots volunteers blanketed the state with more than 100,000 voter guides, urging citizens to make the candidates earn their vote.
This year in Louisiana it went beyond theory. There was a conversation between voters and candidates. If your candidate for office won, it’s easy to say “Yes, it was a good conversation, let’s do it again.” If he or she lost, the temptation might be to say it was an exercise in futility. I believe both answers are wrong.
The People’s Agenda was never about electing certain candidates. It was about injecting the people’s issues into the election debate in such a way that candidates had no choice but to respond. In the vast majority of cases, they did. So much so that for the first time in memory, the governor and most members of both the House and the Senate are on record in support of a series of ethical reforms that originated with the people. In addition, everyone of those elected officials has been served notice that citizens expect them to spend the next four years working on important things like education and crime, and those who don’t will be held accountable.
Looking at what’s happened in recent years it would be easy to say any hope of that in Louisiana is naively idealistic. But when hundreds of candidates for public office run on platforms that promise to change the self-serving nature of politics in our state, I’m encouraged. When they’re talking about putting the “service” back in “public service,” there is reason for optimism.
Sometimes we forget that the word politics comes from the Greek word meaning “of the citizens.”
This year the citizens of Louisiana spoke in a collective voice that resonates. Time will tell if our elected leaders really listened, but I know one thing: the smart ones did.
Harold Suire is a former president and CEO of a Council for A Better Louisiana.