Wiser and Murray: Make a difference in ‘the room where it happens’
In the musical “Hamilton,” currently playing in Utah, there is a song called “The Room Where It Happens.” Aaron Burr sings, “No one really knows how the game is played, the art of the trade, how the sausage gets made, we just assume that it happens.” Burr is lamenting the fact that a major negotiation happened between Alexander Hamilton, James Madison and Thomas Jefferson — and that Burr was not in the room. It’s unfortunate when citizens do not understand how “the sausage gets made.” The biggest problem with that is that our government works best when we are paying attention. Our founders set our government up as a representative democracy, but they never intended for that to be a license for the masses to completely disengage from the political process.
In our last presidential election, 66.8% of the eligible population voted, which was the highest number we have seen in decades. But that means 33.2% of eligible voters were not paying attention. And, most of those voters do not participate in any other way. According to the Pew Research Center, only 32% of Americans attended a campaign event; only 14% of Americans are members of political organizations; only 11% have contacted an elected official; and only 9% have posted political comments online. Perhaps more disappointing, a full 58% of Americans said they would never contact an elected official.
This is disheartening because, as an example, research shows that when there is a local newspaper that sends a journalist to city council meetings, the city council is more likely to be fiscally responsible. Research also shows that when citizens contact their members of Congress, those members are more likely to do what their constituents want. While it is likely that most of us will never be in the room where it happens, we can have an effect on the people in those rooms when we are involved. For our government to be responsive to the people, the people have to be paying attention and telling the government what they want. When only 11% are doing that, our republic is not working as well as it could. When 58% say they never will, what incentive do people in government have to respond? They know they are the only people in the room where things happen, and they can do whatever they want.
We know that people are more likely to participate if they feel like they understand what is happening. To that end, the Olene S. Walker Institute of Politics & Public Service has been educating citizens of Northern Utah for nearly a decade. We have facilitated conversations about issues as diverse as the future of the Marshall White Recreation Center, whether we should change Weber County Commission government and how important the Great Salt Lake is to our economy, among many others. We have also taught citizens what the various levels of government do, as well as discussed the implications of election results. We have made paying attention possible and accessible to all citizens at whatever level of participation they desire. We want the citizens of Northern Utah to be part of the 11% of Americans who responsibly contact their elected officials.
This spring, we at the Walker Institute are bringing back the Political Leadership Institute, which is designed to help citizens not only get into the room where it happens, but also then know what to do once they’re on the inside. We are partnering with Save the Children to train people on how to advocate for the issues they care about. In another session, we will be joined by local political party leaders to explain the caucus system to Northern Utah citizens. And it will culminate when we host a candidate night for all individuals running for office in Weber and Davis counties, so voters can meet them in advance of the conventions, primaries and the general election. For more details on each of these events, please check out our website at weber.edu/walkerinstitute, and then please join us as we host programming to give people the tools to not just be in the room where it happens, but also to make a difference in that room.
Devin Wiser is the executive director of government relations and the director of the Olene S. Walker Institute of Politics & Public Service at Weber State University. Leah Murray is a Brady Distinguished Presidential Professor of Political Science and the academic director of the Walker Institute.