Ronald Reagan may be one of the most beloved presidents in modern history, but he spurred distrust in the government with soundbites like “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are: I’m from the government, and I’m here to help.” When his administration traded guns for hostages, he created a self-fulfilling prophecy for the American public. Could they trust the most powerful man in American government when he admitted his administration’s imprudence?
“I told the American people I did not trade arms for hostages. My heart and my best intentions still tell me that’s true. But the facts and the evidence tell me it is not,” said Reagan of the Iran Contra Affair. In doing so, Reagan took a cudgel to the functional relationship that citizens should have with a government “by the people, for the people.” In a democratic republic, it is our right and responsibility to be informed and have agency as educated voters and/or as civil servants.
“It’s hard to rely on my good intentions when I miss so much that requires attention,” sang Toad the Wet Sprocket. With a bit of aw-shucks, Reagan confessed that the evidence and facts proved his “heart and best intentions” wrong. He and his advisors provided material support for the cocaine-industry-funded Contras in Nicaragua, as well as sold 1,500 missiles to Iran hoping to exchange those for seven American hostages - only three came home and an Iranian terrorist group took three more hostages to replace those released. In the long arc of history, both “backroom” decisions backfired for the American public, helping the drug trade and Iranian opposition to the U.S.
Thus in both political rhetoric and in actual deed, Reagan fomented anti-government sentiment and contributed to the conspiratorial distrust that is now an all-out furor on social media. While it’s convenient and quick to reach for our phones to doomscroll and rage post on tiktok or X about the government’s sneaky, overreach and bemoan our lack of agency, we don’t have to throw our hands up and blame those in power. We can take action - democracy by nature allows this - By shining the light of transparency starting in our local government, we can chase away the shadows of subterfuge and hearsay.
It’s one of the functions of the League of Women Voters. The LWV provides citizens opportunities to inform one another on the workings of the government — the observer corps. The observer corps provides direct access, without the media, which Thomas Jefferson called the de facto fourth branch of the government. The observer corps works when average citizens commit themselves to one to two hours a month attending a board or committee meeting, taking notes and providing their notes to the League which posts it for anyone to read.
Leading up to the pandemic in Montgomery County, members of our local LWV led the state in a robust, functioning observer corps, but the pandemic re-ordered our lives and time. Almost four years from March 2020, surrounding Leagues are reviving their Observer Corps and our League would like to join them.
Nearby, in Tippecanoe County, Ken Jones heads up the League of Women Voters Lafayette observers. In November, he presented how they re-engaged their members to LWV of Montgomery County at our quarterly membership meeting. The Lafayette League resumed its observers over a year ago with a powerful why. At the moment, many of the members of LWV Lafayette were active on the Diversity Roundtable and they noticed how often the police had been in the news. Members wanted to understand how that agency was working. To better understand incidents between police and citizens and to understand the goals of newly elected school board officials, passionate LWV members agreed to become observers.
The observer corps works with the legal requirements for local, state and federal government to increase transparency and accountability. In Indiana, the open door law passed in 1977 and amended in 2016 gives the public access to meetings held by public agencies. This means any citizen may attend a meeting to witness the government in action and participate in the process. A citizen at a public meeting may play one of two very different roles in the meeting — quiet observer or advocate. The former watches, notes, heeds, pays attention to and complies with the board or committee. The latter is present to plead in favor of a stance. While LWV members may either observe or advocate, those roles work when separated. If a member is passionate enough to need to speak up, they should attend as an advocate rather than an observer to avoid confusion, Jones cautions. It’s important to avoid opinion creeping into the reports and to separate the mandate of the League from the personal motivations, he notes.
An observer, Jones presented to LWVMC, serves the public in an increasingly urgent manner as communities lose their local media and news reporters. Observers give other citizens a chance to read the voting record of elected officials, allow interested citizens to know what decisions are made, facilitate understanding of publicly funded projects - and give us a chance to respond with input/buy-in - and empower others to advocate so that public leaders are accountable to the will of the people. This is how it’s done in a representative democracy. This is how we take back agency.
Whereas Montgomery County’s LWV observed more than 20 boards and committees pre-pandemic, Lafayette’s corp had been dormant. The Lafayette League revived only four observations — those of the county commissioners, county council, school board and police commission. Why only these? Because these boards mattered most to members. Jones and the Lafayette League took care to honor the interests and values of members.
Observing requires little formal training, Jones says, but he does ask members be committed to separating advocacy from observation, taking uniform notes using the LWV template, showing up to meetings and being persistent when portions of meetings are in “executive session,” which is a private portion of the meeting, until the public portion.
As with all major tasks, many hands make the load light. Here in Montgomery County, we have a robust membership, and if members commit to one to two hours a month, attending a meeting that incites their curiosity or interests, they can empower fellow members to advocate when issues arise.
Despite high levels of trust in our local government, anyone who reads a Montgomery County chatter group knows that we have citizens who doubt, challenge and distrust this or that office. Perhaps they resist a stoplight at a certain intersection, are upset that the city hasn’t recruited a specific grocery or food chain, question who makes the ballot or not, they’re frustrated with housing shortages, distrust this or that judge, spread opinions on this or that law enforcement officer, wonder why we don’t have more clinics or mental health providers, why some book is in a library or certain changes happen in schools. The most effective way to combat rumors and distrust is to invite those people to see for themselves. Become a member (we have scholarships) and join the observer corps.
The League of Women Voters, a non-partisan, multi-issue organization encourages informed and active participation in government, works to increase public understanding of major policy issues and influences public policy through education and advocacy. All men and women are invited to join the LWV where hands-on work to safeguard democracy leads to civic improvement. For information, visit the website www.lwvmontcoin.org or the League of Women Voters of Montgomery County, IN Facebook page.