The rule of thirds

read recently that approximately one-third of the U.S. population identifies as either staunchly conservative or strongly liberal, leaving about two-thirds to fall somewhere in the middle.

The story I was reading also said that people who fall into that one-third of those with more extreme political viewpoints are more likely to be engaged politically — more likely to vote, to write letters and make phone calls to lawmakers, to voice their opinions, etc. 

This makes sense, when you think about it. Of course those with strongly held viewpoints are going to be more likely to express those views.

The story I read had an accompanying quiz, with several questions to help you gauge where on the continuum from strongly liberal to strongly conservative your own views lie. It was no surprise to me, or probably anyone else, that I am included in the group that identifies as strongly liberal.

As the story predicted, I would consider myself to be quite politically engaged.

I suppose I could have been satisfied that the quiz reaffirmed what I already knew, but, instead, this particular story bothered me.

One-third of the U.S. population, one-third whose political views are on the extremes, are more likely to be engaged. What does that really mean?

For all practical purposes, it means that one-third of us are calling the shots for everyone else. Given that the people in this one-third are from complete opposite ends of the political spectrum, it also accounts for the increasing polarization we see in our political discourse and for the way our lawmakers, especially at the national level, never seem to accomplish much of anything.

People who don’t vote are one of my pet peeves. There are loads of excuses for why people choose not to exercise the right to vote, but one of the ones I often hear is something along the lines of, “Well, both candidates suck and I don’t want to vote when it’s choosing between the lesser of two evils.” 

In my opinion, this was particularly true of the most recent presidential election when voters in November 2016 had a choice between two critically flawed candidates. Most people I know who voted weren’t voting for someone, but were instead voting against the opponent. Myself included.

I completely understand when people say they would rather not vote than have to choose between two bad options.

However, what I think people fail to understand is that if more people were actively engaged — regularly — we wouldn’t be stuck with such terrible options. 

There is a long process to narrow down candidates to the two we’re left with in general elections. There are caucuses or primary elections, both of which have historically poor voter participation rates, so the results are determined by that one-third with extreme viewpoints. 

The other excuse I often hear for not voting is, “Well, it’s Wyoming, and our votes don’t really matter anyway.” That may be the case for presidential elections, but there is always a lot more on the ballot than just the candidates for president. 

Everything from school board to city and county government to state legislature to U.S. Congress and much more is on that ballot. 

Mid-term election voter turnout is pretty abysmal. According to the Wyoming Secretary of State website, during the last mid-term elections in 2014, 27 percent of Wyoming’s voting age population actually showed up to vote at the primaries and 38.5 percent at the general election. 

There it is again, right about one-third. 

So, why does this bother me so much? 

Well, for one thing, I think it’s part of our civic duty as Americans to participate in the political process. It’s been a huge issue this year in professional sports if athletes choose to take a knee during the national anthem or when people don’t stand for the Pledge of Allegiance. 

I personally find the whole thing rather silly. Standing for a song or to recite some words is really just a symbolic action. 

Voting, on the other hand, is actually doing something. In a small town like ours, each and every vote does make a difference for the things that impact all of us every single day. It’s actually exercising a right that people have sacrificed for us to have, a right that we take for granted but that other people don’t have at all. 

Unfortunately, there’s not much emphasis on civics these days. Another story I read recently pointed out that nearly one in three Americans can’t name even one branch of our government. I don’t think it’s at all uncommon for people not to know who Wyoming’s congressmembers are or how many Supreme Court justices there are or not to know what’s actually in our Constitution. 

In my view, that’s just pathetic and is the real sign of disrespect to our country. 

But, beyond that, it’s a huge problem that we willingly let one-third of us decide our fate. 

Can you imagine if we applied that same principle to everything?

The Uinta County commissioners could make decisions based off just one vote. The Evanston City Council would only need two votes and the UCSD No. 1 school board three. 

I can’t imagine most local residents being OK with those scenarios. 

And, again, when that one-third who participates has views on the extreme ends of the spectrum, it results in complete dysfunction. 

Most of us in our daily lives have to compromise and make concessions. We do it at work and at home. It’s a necessity.

Even though I myself am strongly liberal, I also recognize that those around me may not be and, in fact, probably aren’t. I actually want the people representing us at any and all levels of government to listen to one another, compromise, and get things accomplished.

I truly believe that most of us want that. 

But what we have now is that extreme one-third voting for extreme candidates. These extreme candidates then refuse to compromise or “reach across the aisle” or even listen to the viewpoints of those from the opposite party. Much of the time they go out of their way to demonize the other side as people who hate America or some other ridiculous nonsense.

They play to their base, that portion of the one-third who elected them. And nothing, absolutely nothing, ever gets done. 

So, we curse our lawmakers more for the extreme dysfunction and we become even more disengaged — which is what caused the problem in the first place. 

Stop and think for a moment about whether your government — be it local, state, or national — genuinely represents you. Do those individuals understand your life and its challenges and hopes? Do they really reflect your mentality if they refuse to budge even an inch? How many of us can be so obstinate in our worlds? 

My favorite professor in graduate school used to say, “We get the government that we deserve.” I think this is true. When so many of us willingly give up our right to participate, we deserve what we’re left with. 

I can only hope that we’ll all decide we deserve better than government of the one-third, by the one-third, and for the one-third.


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