The Observer Effect in Local Politics

an_experiment_on_a_bird_in_an_air_pump_by_joseph_wright_of_derby2c_1768

An Experiment on a Bird in an Air Pump, a painting by English Painter Joseph Wright (1768). Image from Wikimedia.org

 

I used to try to encourage people to become more active in politics by saying, “Democracy is not a spectator sport.” I thought that in order for democracy to work well, people needed to get out and be part of the political system of which, whether they acknowledge it or not, they are a part. I believed that taking action–by running for office, working to get candidates elected, and keeping abreast of current issues–was the best, and perhaps the only, way to make government accountable to those it serves.

I now see that I was wrong.

Local politics is in fact the only level of politics that really matters to most of us, because it’s the only sphere of politics which most of us can affect. And local government functions better when it is played out in front of an audience. In other words, people behave differently when other people are watching them: they are more careful with their words and their behavior. I discovered this by accident; in the wake of profound disillusionment from the election, I took the only action I could. I started attending local governmental meetings: a city council meeting here, a coffee hour with a state representative there. I began to follow the local political news, just to have a sense of what was going on in my little world. It wasn’t much, but it was all that I could do, and I was tired of sitting at home in disgust, frustration, and fear.

What I discovered is that democracy is subject to what is called, in physics, “The Observer Effect,” which states that the mere act of observing a system changes it. Once we set out to observe something, even as a silent bystander, we have an effect on that which we observe. While this might make trying to get a good measurement of electrons impossible, it works to our advantage in politics. We can, as spectators, effect the changes we want to see in governance. With very little effort–by just showing up–we can begin to make our local political units more accountable, and hopefully, more honest and effective.

And so, I want to correct my earlier statement. Democracy, at its lowest but its most important level, can indeed be a spectator sport. We don’t all have to run for office, making speeches and participating in debates. We don’t even have to study the issues, although it would be better if we did. All we really need to do is show up and let our elected representatives know that we are, in fact, watching them. By doing so, we will inspire them to consider their ideas and words–and ultimately their actions–more carefully and thoughtfully. And we will do our part, however small and seemingly insignificant, to make sure that democracy not only survives, but thrives, during this difficult time.

 

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