The Will of The People

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May 23, 2008 No Comments ›› admin

May 23, 2008

“I couldn’t find your desk. You don’t have your name on it!” The 4th grader wanted to know where I sat in the Senate Chamber.  “We all have our names on our desks so everyone knows everyone.”

The Capitol is filled with 4th graders.

May is a time of class visits and schools from all over our Senate District are sending their children to learn first hand how democracy works. Every 4th grader wants to know how the Senate works. They want to know the “classroom” rules and who is in charge. They want to know how much my life is similar to their life.

We have more in common then they will ever know.

Civics class leaves us with an image of government that is sanitized and simplified. We learn that Legislators who represent the people make decisions based on the common good. But civics lessons fail to capture the human dimension of the process. And so often the human part of the process reminds me of worst parts of 4th grade.

There are bullies and egos. We play ‘Who is the king of the mountain’. There is the name calling and the intimidation. Often the worst of 4th grade in the Capitol comes not from elected officials but from the interest groups trying to influence the process.

Like some 4th graders, they look at the world with themselves at the center which makes it hard to see the big picture. It’s hard for them to see that their solution is not the best for everyone or how their actions affect everyone around them. And if they don’t get their way they are tempted to call names.

The central lesson 4th graders learn about government is democracy is the will of the people.

The democratic process is a public one that balances competing interests and puts the common good above that of any individual interest. The word itself literally means “the rule of the people”.

Yet so often the ‘rule of the people’ is subjugated by profit-driven motives coming from those outside the Capitol trying to influence the legislative process. There are those who are paid to advance certain pieces of legislation designed to help one particular interest group; often at the expense of the public’s interest.

The role of the elected official is to bring the will of the people back into the discussion and to represent those who sent the Legislator. This is why, as I told the 4th graders, my desk is not “Senator Vinehout’s desk” but the desk for the Senator from the 31st. In fact, the Senate tradition is that we never refer to our colleagues by name on the Senate floor. It is always “The Senator from the 31st.”

This tradition reminds us to always heed what Ulysses S. Grant so eloquently stated, “This is a republic where the will of the people is the law of the land. I beg that their voice may be heard.”

The 4th graders saw the words on the ceiling in the beautiful Governor’s Conference Room: “The Will of the People is the Law of the Land.”  And if the walls of the Capitol could speak to them, the story told would be one about the importance of civic involvement. 

As I sent the students on their way, I wondered if they knew how much hope I placed in them to learn their lessons well today.  It will be their responsibility to carry on the democratic tradition and show future generations that we, the people, worked together to make Wisconsin flourish.

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Eau Claire, WI 54702