The road to responsive change

As an election is upon us, change is in the air — probably to the detriment of President Donald Trump. Anticipated large turnouts usually indicate dissatisfaction with the existing order. Voters want change to keep up with and respond to the disconcerting changes in our lives.

Why is it, in this time of dramatic change, that our governmental institutions do not appear to be working very well? It is a question that many are asking.

It may be that such change is outpacing our ability to formulate policies necessary to cope with the consequences of those changes appropriately. We are applying old policies to new problems, and they are not working. For example, a growing awareness of the problem of climate change is resulting in a commitment to clean renewable energy; i.e., wind, solar, moving away from fossil fuels.

Notwithstanding that fact, we continue to build oil and gas pipelines that will have to be paid for by a diminished revenue base; i.e., stranded costs for consumers.

To cope with this type of problem, we need leadership that is willing to get the general public — real, average people and not just special interest groups — engaged in, and informed about, making public policies. Engaged in, because that’s how our system works — participatory democracy. The system doesn’t work unless we all work at making it work. Informed about, because the problems — e.g., climate change — are becoming more complex. There are more options and alternatives to consider. You can’t fix the problem if you don’t understand the problem. Democracy is about making decisions about choices. Gun violence is an example of an issue ready to be dealt with. Citizens are becoming tragically engaged due to their children being shot, in classrooms or on the streets. They are becoming informed by reading about the lethal firepower of available military assault weapons. This awareness hopefully yields policy progress …

Taking on this admirable approach to policymaking is not for the faint-hearted. Defenders of the status quo, no matter how bad the policy is, will defend it to the death. That is usually because they are making money from such policies (think tobacco, coal, assault weapons). 

Getting our citizens engaged and informed, however, is the only way to meet the challenges of the future. We have no choice …

Jim Florio served as the 49th governor of the state of New Jersey from 1990-1994. He is a founding partner at the law firm of Florio Perrucci Steinhardt Cappelli Tipton & Taylor LLC, based in Phillipsburg.