At a 2011 TEDx talk at Concordia University, Jefferson Smith, Portland, Oregon native and future mayoral candidate, activist, and entrepreneur, approached the podium and asked the audience a troubling question: “Whose job is it to get rid of the deficit?” The audience squirmed a bit as Smith argued why some of America’s most critical problems are “nobody’s job to fix.”
“Right now, we have the biggest gap and wealth disparity between rich and poor since the Gilded Age. Whose job is it to fix that? Figuring out education policy, health care policy, reforming energy policy, whose job is that? Figuring out a high-road economy that is prosperous, fair, and sustainable. Whose job is that?”
Jefferson Smith is not a fatalist. Smith is one of Oregon’s most optimistic advocates for democracy. He made it his mission to help all of us understand that because these severe and pressing problems are nobody’s job, they must be everyone’s job. For Jefferson, this means each of us is responsible for engaging in our democracy if we expect it to succeed.
“Yes, you’ve got to advocate for your mission, but also make sure that mission is as publicly oriented as possible,” Jefferson Smith said, recalling lobbyists who fought on behalf of multiple agendas. “You can fight for issues that are most important to you and still fight for issues that are important to your neighbors. When everybody does this, we all succeed.”
“[The people who do this] are the coalition of the benevolently irrational — the good people doing good things for no good reason. And without you, democracy is not possible,” he said. “It’s not entirely irrational, of course. Each of us is stronger if all of us are stronger.” And before you go labeling lobbyists or interest groups as inherently evil because you disagree with their message, Jefferson Smith reminds us that advocating for yourself is not evil. What is true is that it is an incomplete view of what is best for everyone: “A huge portion of our most important problems is not resolved by that dynamic.”
Another important takeaway is that you do not need to be rich or powerful to make a difference. You can rally people around you to effect change if it is a change that is the best choice for most people involved. Jefferson Smith recognized several relatively unknown people who influenced Portland in positive ways just by having a vision and working to implement creative solutions to problems.
Ultimately, our democracy cannot thrive without active participation and a shared goal of finding creative solutions that benefit the most people. And if you can contribute to that vision, you are priceless.
Jefferson Smith can be described as idealistic but uses his vision of a better future to inspire audiences and encourage active participation in democracy and their communities. He is vocal about the importance of everyone taking responsibility for ensuring that our government and democracy represent everyone involved. While he is a member of the Democratic party, his speeches are even and fair and seek to refocus partisan issues into not who is wrong or right but on finding the most effective, creative solutions to any problem.
As Smith concluded, he encouraged the TEDx crowd to “not merely to operate within machines or to rage against machines, but to build new machines not only for self-benefit but also for the benefit of all,” which will make you priceless. And the definition of priceless is “worth a lot and not for sale.”