One of the enduring myths in American politics is that you don’t have to participate in politics if you don’t want to. Many are so disgusted they go to great lengths to avoid politics. Whole movements in U.S. history have been dedicated to that goal, and most failed when it was realized it can’t be done.
At some point, politics will find you, maybe in ways you don’t want, like a massive global recession that sends up in smoke your life savings. You might hold it off for a spell if you live in a backwater hundreds of miles from the nearest town, but that’s not going to stop the inevitable. Not participating is participating. The real choice is between being an active citizen or a passive recipient.
Take, for instance, the current debate unfolding at the Capitol over the problem of bears (I know this sounds arbitrary, but go with me here). Connecticut must be doing something right in terms of environmental policy. The population of black bears has been growing by about 10 percent a year. That’s good, and bad. The animals are moving into places where they shouldn’t be.
Even if you never voted, never wrote to your state representative, never spent a minute thinking about whatever’s going on in Hartford and who-knows-what for the love of God, politics still found you if you were among the estimated 6,700 bear sightings last year, or if you were in one of 43 car wrecks last year involving a bear. Like bears, politics has a way of making itself known.
So what are we going to do?
Some suggest we legalize bear hunting. If managed properly, it would thin the bear population without devastating it, according to the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection. A bill moving to the Senate floor would limit hunting to permittees and the number of bears killed in the first year would to be no more than 5 percent of the population (about 35 animals).
Supporters say it will ensure public safety, but the loudest voices come from the opposition, animal rights activists who have taken to slamming state Sen. Ted Kennedy Jr. for enabling a “desperate attempt for a bear trophy hunt in Connecticut.” Kennedy, D-Branford, is co-chair of the Senate Environment Committee who voted for the bill before reluctantly sending it out of committee.
Thing is, Kennedy doesn’t like hunting. Neither do the animal rights activists shouting him down. But loving animals is what got us here.
The population of a large terrestrial omnivore does not bounce back to around 700 statewide in the absence of friendly environmental laws. Opponents would apparently prefer no action, but doing nothing isn’t going to save the bears. As I said, 43 bears are already being killed in car wrecks in which the lives of citizens are jeopardized along with the bears’.
So there is no such thing as doing nothing. No action is action. Bears will die or bears will die.
The question is which of these is the least bad option?
Kennedy, for his part, is showing courage and handling the issue (mostly) well.
Kevin Rennie, a Republican political columnist for the Hartford Courant, got a hold of a recording of Kennedy’s Environment Committee meeting in March. On his blog, Rennie reported that Kennedy said: “I don’t like hunting, I think it’s barbaric, I understand that other people do and I respect that but in the last couple of weeks I’ve changed my mind on this bill after speaking to wildlife biologists from DEEP and really learning more about the public safety issues that bears actually pose in our state we have rapidly increasingly population of bear.”
Rennie and others are going to pounce on “barbaric,” but his feelings about hunting are secondary to concerns over public safety. As a possible contender for governor, Kennedy is going to be a natural target. Republicans are already characterizing him as “out of touch.” But if that were really the case, he would merely kick the can down the road. Making the hard choice is the result of knowing that if you don’t engage politics, politics is going to engage you.
John Stoehr is a lecturer in political science at Yale, a business columnist for Hearst Connecticut Media, an essayist for the New Haven Register and a U.S. News & World Report contributing editor.