Ho Hum – who cares?

  • By: Al Smith, President/CEO of the Fresno Chamber of Commerce

For centuries there has been this accepted wisdom regarding government that there was a fourth estate.  As we know, the three branches are the Legislative, Judicial and Administrative.

In 1787, the “fourth estate” phrase was supposedly coined by Edmund Burke as he spoke to the three estates of England’s government.  In an impassioned speech he gazed at the press gallery assembled in the House of Commons and proclaimed that the press and its influence on citizens was a fourth estate.

Now comes a commentary in a recent issue of the Washington Post, where George Washington University Law Professor, Jonathan Turley,  writes that our carefully constructed system of government checks and balances is “being negated by the rise of an administrative state of sprawling federal departments and agencies governing with increasing autonomy and decreasing transparency.” This layer of bureaucracy is calling the shots at the expense of Congress’s law-making ability with very little accountability.

Enter yet another “fourth estate”.  As was pointed out recently at a Chamber meeting with Pete Peterson, a Public Policy advocate at Pepperdine University and expected candidate for California’s Secretary of State, he noted that the ability for Californians to submit and pass initiatives via the ballot represents a “fourth” option for governance.

The recent overturning of the City Council’s decision to outsource residential trash by a small amount of energized voters was, right or wrong, an example of our traditional branches being weakened of their responsibilities.  No one would argue that citizens shouldn’t have the ability to rise up and vote on an important issue.  But the bigger problem is when they don’t vote.

In the recent election about 20% of the voters went to the polls.  Obviously the union side was more motivated than the non-union because they won 50.7% to 49.3%.  But as my former colleague and current friend – KMJ talk show host John Broeske – creatively pointed out, the “No on Measure G” won not by less than one percent, but almost 91%.  How did my intellectual friend come to that conclusion?  Because 80% of the voters said, “we don’t care”.  They were content no matter which way it went.  In essence, their lack of participation gave support to whichever side won – thus 90% Against – 10% For.

Today’s conversation shouldn’t be whether the press, bureaucrats, or motivated citizens are commandeering our government.  Let’s worry less about the branches of our government tree and more about its roots.  Voter apathy is a result of disgust with government; the inconvenience of casting a vote and basically an “I can’t be bothered” attitude.  If we don’t begin to address that issue – those fourth estates will continue to rule our lives and that’s scary.


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