By Alex Henlin

Back when he left the Senate in the late 1990s, former Democratic New Jersey Senator Bill Bradley delivered an emotional speech on the Senate floor in which he declared that American politics was “fundamentally broken.” He recited a litany of problems that he blamed on the system, from allowing interest groups and lobbyists to dominate political discussion to the need for serious candidates to raise inordinate sums of money to be competitive in races for federal office. In large measure, Bradley had it right: The American political system is not what it once was. Something has to change. Today, you have the chance to make that change happen.

The problem with Bradley’s analysis is that he identified the symptoms of a dysfunctional political system without ever exploring the underlying cause of all the problems. You see, the American system of government was designed to accomplish very little by way of legislation and government action. By dividing power and instituting a variety of checks and balances, the framers – in my opinion, wisely – devised a system that met the needs of a fundamentally conservative electorate. People don’t want change to come all that rapidly, and the constitutional framework that we have in place today accomplishes that goal magnificently.

The difficulty with our system of government is that it rewards inaction. It does not encourage new ideas or bold initiatives. Rather, it raises risk-avoidance to the level of virtue and encourages our legislators to make small, “safe” decisions that have the effect of maintaining the status quo. One need only look at recent history to find examples of what I’m saying. Whether you agree with President George W. Bush’s decision to create a Cabinet-level Department of Homeland Security or not, the reality of the fact is that Bush’s new idea floundered in Congress and did not gain passage before the end of the 107th Congress. Similarly, look at former President Bill Clinton’s (SFS ’68) healthcare initiative. Back in 1993, a majority of Americans thought it was the best idea since sliced bread, but it failed spectacularly. Today, you and I – and every American citizen who is over the age of 18 – have the opportunity to begin to change this way of thinking.

Everything begins with you exercising your right to the franchise. Get out today and vote where the races matter to you. During my six years at Georgetown, I have never once voted in the District of Columbia. Campaign Georgetown may hate me, but I really don’t think that my vote in D.C. makes the same difference that my vote in Massachusetts does. There’s just something about living and voting in a real state that actually elects full members of the House and Senate that appeals to me in a way that the contest between Mayor Anthony Williams and Council Member Schwartz can’t.

If you really want to make a difference, though, don’t just vote – vote for the candidates who have big ideas. Send a message through the ballot box that you don’t like the status quo. Millions of Americans cast their ballots for Ross Perot in the 1992 presidential race, and suddenly both of the major parties adopted his campaign themes. Similarly, this Republican cast his ballot in the 2000 primary for Bill Bradley, because I honestly thought that his idea for universal health care was better than anything being pushed by other candidates from either party.

My biggest issue right now is high-speed passenger rail. Any politician who would advocate spending vast sums of federal money to build a reliable, punctual, inexpensive and fast high-speed rail network across this nation akin to what we already have with the Interstate highway system would get my vote in a heartbeat. It’s embarrassing that Europe and Japan have rail systems that are so good you can travel between points at more than 200 miles per hour, and set your watch by the timetables, while Americans sit in traffic jams on both freeways and runways. The sad fact of the matter, though, is that my idea will never get put into law because it is so bold, daring and out of the ordinary – unless, of course, I vote for people who think that bold ideas are worth considering.

Only by voting do you earn the right to complain if you don’t see my ideas and goals reflected in the decisions made by our representatives in government. So get out today and vote. Vote your convictions. Vote your conscience. Exercise your right and do your civic duty. Vote.

Alex Henlin is a 2001 graduate of the College and is a second-year student at the Law Center. He can be reached at The Dissenting Opinion appears every other Tuesday.

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