“Applause, mingled with boos and hisses, is about all that the average voter is able or willing to contribute to public life.” – Journalist Elmer Davis
One of the bonuses of writing this column is hearing from from readers. It’s great because it means I have readers and I’ve moved them enough to get a reaction – positive or negative.
So when someone sends me an e-mail or stops me in the grocery store to talk about one of my columns – whether they agree or disagree with my position – I always thank them for reading my column and almost always suggest they write a letter to the editor.
I do this because I think it’s important to increase the number of people whose opinions are heard on the opinion page, to combat what I’ve begun to think of as “Regulars Syndrome.”
Not that there’s anything wrong with being, er, regular.
I first noticed the syndrome when I was a reporter covering Morgan Hill City Hall. The same people rotated in and out of the various panels, committees and task forces that politicians are so fond of creating. The same faces appeared at the podium to address City Council members. These were also the people, because they were educated and passionate about the issues, who were frequently quoted in my news stories. The school board beat had its own cast of regulars.
It’s the same on the opinion page. There are regulars among letter writers who have pet topics that you just know will drive them to put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard. Readers quickly learn to predict where the weekly columnists will stand on any given issue.
I don’t want to denigrate the contributions of the regulars – and not only because I’m one of them. Folks who make the time to speak up, to join task forces, to pen letters expressing their opinions are, pardon the pun, the fiber of our community. Regulars are critical to the functioning of countless subcommittees and volunteer panels. They give life to the opinion page and provide journalists reliable and knowledgeable quotes.
But there’s a down side to Regular Syndrome. Just like a diet of shredded wheat quickly becomes bland and boring, a variety perspectives is important to a vibrant dialogue on important issues.
When same people spout their tired party lines often enough, we begin to tune them out. Like so much background noise, we dismiss them because we know what they’re going to say before they speak or write.
I’m sure that the next time I write about the cost of the Gilroy police station or advocate strong separation of church and state, many readers will sigh, “There she goes again.” But if someone who hasn’t expounded repeatedly on these topics takes time to contact the newspaper or their council member, that’s a whole other matter. It means people are listening, that the topic is important to them, and elected officials take notice.
Agreeing or disagreeing with me in the privacy of your home is one thing, but letting your community and your elected officials know what you think can actually make a difference.
It’s going beyond the catcalls and clapping level of civic participation. And, since you’re reading your local paper’s opinion page right now, I’m betting you’re a prime candidate to take that next step. That’s why I’m encouraging South Valley’s most informed residents – opinion page readers like yourself – to become even more involved in local politics.
We need fresh voices, new points of view, different ways of looking at issues and novel methods for advocating a position to keep us all engaged in the issues facing our community.
A letter to the editor isn’t the only way to go beyond the catcall and clapping level of civic participation. Write or call local elected officials. Speak at a public meeting; it communicates more than your opinion – it tells your elected representatives that you’re serious about an issue.
If you’re willing to become even more involved, consider serving on a panel or committee. There are always several operating within any local governmental agency. You might even mull taking the biggest step: Running for local office.
It’s a huge responsibility, a big commitment of time and energy, and it’s admittedly not for everyone. The filing period for local elections is approaching in a few months. If you’ve got the passion, there’s plenty of time to organize a campaign.
If we want South Valley to boast vibrant political dialogue, it requires more than catcalls and clapping in the living room.