Opinion: Stay politically engaged in new year

With great power comes great responsibility. This phrase has been uttered time and time again and is applicable to a wide range of situations, especially in politics.

On Jan. 9, the Kansas Legislature will start its 2023 legislative session. But it’s not a statewide election year, so many Kansans won’t be paying much attention to the events happening in Topeka this spring.

Citizens have the power to choose our government, but we must also pay attention to hold elected officials accountable. With great power comes great responsibility.

Political efficacy is the belief that citizens can influence politics and government. Most Americans have low political efficacy, which may not be surprising to you based on voter turnout. That is partially due to low levels of trust in government and goes hand in hand with low performance satisfaction.

The 2022 Kansas Speaks statewide public opinion survey — run by the Docking Institute of Public Affairs at Fort Hays State University — showed that only about 31% of Kansans are very or somewhat satisfied with the overall performance of the Kansas Legislature.

Generally speaking, citizens with high levels of political efficacy also have higher levels of performance satisfaction. Largely because these citizens often engage in politics above and beyond voting in elections.

Political science research shows they are more likely to be cognitively engaged — pay attention to political affairs and discuss politics with their friends, for example — and also turn engagement into action by participating in various ways, like contacting their elected officials and attending town hall meetings to make their opinions heard.

In short, engaged citizens have more satisfaction with government because they are able to influence the political system through their participation and are thus more likely to see their preferences carried out into policy.

A foundational piece of political science scholarship — “Congress: The Electoral Connection” by David Mayhew — dubs elected officials “single-minded seekers of re-election.”

Do elected officials care about the political attitudes of all their constituents? Of course not. They are strategic and only have to care about the plurality of citizens who are going to re-elect them. But this does often mean that those who are the loudest and most participatory — and most organized — disproportionately affect policy debates in the Legislature.

As I wrote in a column last April, for many Kansans, government never does enough to address citizen concerns. They never do it fast enough. And they never do exactly what is wanted or even needed. Their work is often filled with half measures and compromises.

But if we look closely, there are many examples where we see average people stepping up and pressuring policymakers for change.

This spring the Legislature is going to debate a cornucopia of bills from tax cuts to “culture war” issues to the Keystone oil spill in northeast Kansas — some of which you will support and some of which you won’t. But guess what? You can do something about it. And your state legislator might even listen.

So, as you’re making your resolutions for the new year, consider adding some political engagement to the list. Write to your state legislator. Attend a town hall meeting. Plan a march to address an issue that’s important to you.

Because with great power comes great responsibility.

— Alexandra Middlewood is an assistant professor of political science at Wichita State University.


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