About 15 years ago I had what I believed to be the solution to our incredibly poor record of electing government officials of — how do the appliance makers refer to it? — quality and reliability:
I thought that if we made everyone vote, better candidates now on the sidelines who aren’t servants to the ideologically too-wound-up would probably run, and we’d all be better off.
I tried out my theory on a co-worker. Low turnouts mean candidates getting elected who wouldn’t have a chance otherwise if everybody was voting, I said.
He wasn’t buying. Think about the kind of people who don’t vote, he said. Do they tend to be among the most knowledgeable?
At least as knowledgeable as the ones who do vote, I started to say, but then I didn’t, because there’s one kind of person less qualified to vote than a voter, and that’s a non-voter.
My colleague was right, of course, and still is. This past week the Tribune ran a column by Mark Anderson, a west Mesa justice of the peace. Anderson cited among the excuses he hears from people in his courtroom to tell why they ignored jury duty are, “I always throw these letters in the trash” and “I’m just too busy to deal with this.”
Want to ask these people if they read up on candidates or ballot questions?
So I gave up on the compulsory-voting solution, but not on my disappointment in the people in elective office, who listen to the powerful few more attentively than the many, in part because the many don’t do their homework and in part because they don’t write large enough checks to the old campaign treasury.
Instead, I keep coming back to the story of Lucius Quinctus Cincinnatus, my dream leader, the type of which seems to come along no more frequently than, oh, every 2,500 years.
I looked up the biography of the hero of ancient Rome maintained by the Cincinnatus Association of, naturally, Cincinnati, the Ohio city named for him and where his statue stands.
As the association recounts it, around 458 B.C., Cincinnatus, retired consul (two consuls ruled the Roman Empire along with its Senate), was plowing his small field near Rome when a delegation of senators came to visit.
The biography tells that the Aequians were defeating Rome in battle and were encircling Roman soldiers on the battlefield not far away. It was only because a few Romans escaped back to the city with word of impending defeat that the Senate was able to come to Cincinnatus with a big request.
The senators came to ask the gentleman farmer to become dictator with unchecked power. A term limit of six months was the only condition, as the story is told.
Cincinnatus left his plow before finishing the planting, cleaned up and went to work. According to the association’s account, “Cincinnatus rid the city of Rome of the threats, and he relieved the Roman legions that were being surrounded by the Aequians. Within 16 days, Cincinnatus had accomplished his mission, given up the title of dictator and promptly returned to his farm.”
That’s right. Just over two weeks to do a six-month job, then giving it all back, with not a thought of sticking around as supreme ruler of the then-known world’s greatest empire. Who today would serve his country so unselfishly?
The trouble with how our government has evolved is that if it ever was set up for people who wanted to be in it as little as possible, those days ended long, long ago. What we need are people who don’t act like they want the job so much, but would be ready to do it if asked, then go back to the kind of life they found more rewarding than a permanent spot on the public payroll.
Of course, voters need the skill to be able to tell real believers in brief, limited, reliable service from those who merely have the ability to talk a good game. At least those Roman senators had Cincinnatus. Whom do we have?
Now, this would be one of those cool opportunities to make comparisons between today’s America and the decadent last days of the Roman Empire, when people spent more and more time on entertainment and immoral behavior and less on responsible citizenship all the way to being overrun.
But, well, that would pay no homage to the memory of Cincinnatus, whose noble actions as dictator and by then resigning helped put off the fall of Rome for another 800 years.
So we have plenty of time, don’t we?
Read Tribune contributing columnist Mark J. Scarp’s opinions here on weekends. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.