I signed up for a four-year military hitch in 1964 and volunteered for Vietnam a year later. I spent that four-year hitch becoming more and more disillusioned about the war I had been so eager to fight.
In the rearview mirror, what do you expect of a 17-year-old kid who grew up reading Oklahoma newspapers? In those days before the Internet, the government had a lot more control over what passed for news than it does today. In the states that were run by Dixiecrats then and are today colored red, the thought that the US could take the wrong side in a war of national liberation was not thinkable.
However, I was not the only US citizen picking up on the ugly. In those days, we did not send 1% of the population to fight our wars. Everybody came to know the war with only one degree of separation. Most of us not born rich knew somebody who did not come back.
Why, then, did the war continue for so long? It was known relatively soon that the Gulf of Tonkin incident was a fraud, but what if it had not been a fraud? How much is it rational for a superpower to punish a Third World agricultural nation for an attack on a warship that caused no injuries?
A newly minted GI Bill student at the University of Texas, I was first exposed to what the political scientists call “salience.” I learned that, for most voters, foreign policy is not a salient issue until it somehow manages to hit them where they live. My generation was bleeding to move Vietnam up on the electoral agenda, nothing more.
Let’s be clear about what salience of issues means to Indians.
It’s not enough that the voters take a position. If it were enough, we would have background checks on all firearms sales and a limit on high capacity magazines. If it were enough, our air and water would be cleaner and whether the minimum national health insurance policy covered birth control would not be a serious question.
Voters must not only have a position, but a position high enough on their agenda that they will base a big chunk of their candidate selection on it. This is not to say base their vote on it exclusively.
Single-issue voters are stupid in that they forfeit any serious role in government. Any candidate who can co-opt the single issue has them safely in his or her pocket and single-issue voters may be ignored on everything else.
Single-issue voters can, however, be powerful far beyond what would be expected by their numbers on their single issue.
You won’t see single-issue voters on foreign policy unless the pain of bad decisions extends to every block where voters are registered.
You won’t see single-issue voters on Indian issues except us.
There’s a vague pro-Indian sentiment in areas far from reservations. In border towns, there’s not much vagueness. Some settlers understand they are settlers and get along with the original residents and some are flaming racists. On the federal level, which is where Indian policy lives, only one anti-Indian talking point has had legs: the status of Indians is unfair to white people. Tribal governments stand in the way of e pluribus becoming unum.
It’s a great talking point because it’s simple while the extra-constitutional status of Indians is complicated. Most lawyers don’t understand it. Lawyers who do understand it have significant disputes among themselves. Salient issues need to be simple.
The United Nations troops are coming in the black helicopters to take our guns away and put us in FEMA camps. Now, that’s simple.
Without pushing simple politics down to the politics of simpletons, I must still observe what the salience of electoral issues teaches Indians. All successful Indian politics on the electoral level are going to be coalition politics. We’ve got a bloc vote for issues that are salient to us, what we call the sovereignty issues.
If and only if that bloc vote is organized, we can deliver like the mailman to the candidate or party who will adopt our issues and does not take positions on other issues we cannot abide. In some cases, there are issues that are not identified to us that we feel strongly about, mostly environmental issues. But sometimes it’s no more complicated than agreeing to take care of others if they agree to take care of us.
That’s the practice of politics in circumstances where you don’t have one strong man making all the decisions for everybody. The practice requires that we be registered to vote, willing to jump over hurdles erected to stop us from voting, and organized enough to be reliable coalition partners.
Steve Russell, Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, is a Texas trial court judge by assignment and associate professor emeritus of criminal justice at Indiana University-Bloomington. He lives in Georgetown, Texas.