It is no secret that government has the power to control how we practice dentistry–it is government that gives us our licenses to practice in the first place.  In the past few decades, it government has been on a crusade to expand their powers of control.  We are currently involved on both national and state levels in a continuous struggle with the government for the right to practice dentistry as we see fit.  Last year, we came perilously close to losing that right as the Clintons attempted to impose their version of managed care on us.  What saved our profession was grassroots involvement.  At least 15,000 individual dentists participated in the ADA’s campaign to convince congressmen that Dentistry is Health Care that Works–that it is different from medicine in that it already employs many managed care ideas.  Networking with each other and with patients, the volunteers on the grassroots team  used visitations, telephones, faxes, letters, and telegrams to send this clear, consistent message to Congress.

Until recently, it was not necessary for dentists to be involved in the political process–it was only necessary to be in our offices. But last year’s experience sends us a clear message that we have a responsibility  to become involved if we want the freedom to offer patients the high level of care that we are accustomed to providing.   “The greatest menace to freedom”, observed Justice Earl Warren in 1972, “is an inert people”20.  Unfortunately, for the majority, political involvement is a distasteful notion.

During the last 30 years while we were busy working in our offices, the government created a legal colossus the likes of which has never been seen in our history!  Legislators enacted laws to control almost every aspect of  dental practice.  The Americans with Disabilities Act has even redefined our private property–the dental office–as a place of public accomodation! They unleashed on us–with “good intentions”– a myriad of  regulatory agencies such as OSHA and EPA. Nobody forsaw that these agencies would become dictatorial in nature, impose on us thousands of rules with the force of law, inspect our offices and levy exorbitant fines.  The new regulations, made without our consent or our input, often disregard the scientific and economic realities of dental practice. They are also so numerous and require so much rediculous documentation that nobody can possibly comply with them.  Worse yet–the lawyers are free to use these them as tools of manipulation for their litigation.  The judges are unwitting accomplices, and behave more like referees for the gladiators.  Cowering under this shadow of government authority, it is easy to be intimidated by the political process.

It is also easy to lose respect for the law, once the pride and joy of our country.  Philip Howard remarked in The Death of Common Sense, that our law was designed to be a “common framework within which a free people could take their own path to fulfillment”. What would the founding fathers say if they could see how volumes of regulations have eroded our freedoms and interfered with our ability to do our jobs?  They created a short document based on general principles for us to live by–the constitution.

The sheer ugliness of political campaigns is another turn-off to political involvement.  During election time, we are bombarded with character assassinations and lies by the candidates!  As a result, many dentists equate politics with “backstabbing” tactics–something that they, of course, could never be good at.  Yet, effective politics is really diplomacy, a skill that we must master in order to be successful.  Dealing with human beings–their anxieties, their desires, and their personality quirks–requires diplomacy.  Politics is really about gaining access to legislators so that we can state our case and try to persuade them to our point of view.

Yet many view politics with cynicism–an exercise in futility.  They, as individuals, are powerless to effect change. “What difference could I possibly make?”, they ask. The fact is that our combined efforts do matter, as long as we speak with one voice. By uniting together behind organized dentistry, we have tremendous clout.  Add our patients into the equation and we can create a bloc of votes that can’t be ignored.   Last year’s victory in Congress over the Clinton plan showed us the true power of grassroots leadership.  Now we are using grassroots involvement to bring about changes in OSHA–something that everyone thought was impossible!

Leadership expert Sheila Murray Bethel21 says that our country depends on grassroots leadership to move forward.  “Our destiny”, she explains, “has found expression in “we the people”–the people of the small towns and big cities taking up a cause, speaking out, serving others, giving their personal effort.  Our representatives legislate, create laws and administrate what the people have decided must be done”.

We dentists have a responsibility  to become politically involved.  If we are to be great dentists in the privacy of our offices, we must make being a dentist great.  Our representatives need to be told what needs to be done.  It is obvious what can happen when we let them use their own initiative.  “We cannot”, warns Dr. Jim Gaines, former ADA President (at last year’s Grassroots conference in Washington), “allow ourselves to be lulled into complacency–now or ever.  Those in the legislative arena must continue to hear from us”.  We can be heard by joining the ADA’s Grassroots team (1-800-232-1630) and by contributing to the political action committees that work for us– ADPAC and EDPAC.

The following article appeared in the September, 1995 article of the Ninth District Dental Association Bullein