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Lloyd Omdahl, Published November 20 2011

Omdahl: You are being heard!

While each group consists of divergent motives and opinions, the tea party and Occupy Wall Street have one common thread – the demand to be heard. History tells us that this is not a new complaint.

The American colonists did not revolt over the tax on tea but over the method by which it was imposed. They thought they should have been heard, even though the tax was completely justified. So they took up arms and threw King George out.

But once assembled as a constitutional convention, the Founding Fathers were very cautious about hearing too much from the people. James Madison proposed a system of government to “refine and enlarge the public views by passing them through a chosen body of citizens whose wisdom may best discern the best interest of their country.” The Founders thought that public views needed filtering.

The Constitution provided for popular election of the House of Representatives but reserved selection of senators to the “chosen body of citizens” who made up the state legislatures. However, the movement to give the people a voice in choosing senators rolled through the 1800s and up to 1913 when the 17th Amendment was adopted providing for direct election of senators. The people got another voice.

The election of the president was entrusted to the Electoral College, members of which were chosen by the state legislatures. Here again, the people wanted a voice, and it wasn’t long before conventions and primaries were naming delegates to presidential nominating conventions and electors were being chosen by direct vote of the people.

(We are not done with the Electoral College. History suggests that it will be replaced with direct election of the president somewhere in the future. The march toward more and more democracy has been relentless and will not be stopped by the Constitution.)

In 1870, 1920 and 1971, new voices were added to the electorate when amendments and laws provided for the enfranchisement of African-Americans, women and those 18 years or older. They were added to the masses entitled to be heard.

Perfection of public opinion polling by George Gallup Sr. in the 1930s brought coherence to the public voice. Now the elite holding public offices could get reliable information about public demands. For the people, it was a new way of being heard.

Then came the age of electronic communication with Facebook, Twitter and all sorts of informal communication systems. Everyone with a BlackBerry (or whatever) could now express opinions and be heard by millions.

Guaranteed freedom of speech and assembly, the entire citizenry is free to be heard on every street in the United States where they can underscore their grievances with placards, yelling and sit-ins. And we have a hundred television channels ready to report these grievances, imagined or real, to the world.

The demand to be heard has bypassed the restrictive elitism of the Founding Fathers. We have abolished the idea that chosen bodies of citizens ought to be the mediators of the voices demanding to be heard.

At no time has the opportunity to be heard been more available. We have come a long way since 1787. So what’s the anger all about? You are being heard. You are being heard.

Omdahl is a former North Dakota lieutenant governor and a retired University of North Dakota political science teacher. Email ndmatters@q.com.