Dr. Eileen Lynch
13. Participation in Democracy
Explain the importance of political participation in a democracy. What are the costs of not participating?
In a democracy, the government represents the people. It is not an entity that exists separate from the general population, but that arises from within and derives its authority and powers from the sufferance of the people it represents. The key word in the last sentence is “sufferance”, for the government is not endured or suffered piteously by the population (although that seems to be the case often), but I used the word “sufferance” to indicate the tacit consent people give to governmental actions by having chosen that government representatives through the voting mechanisms in place, or – even more importantly – by having kept silent when they should have spoken up for or against the installation of said representatives.
The text offers us the case of the 2004 Presidential elections as a case in point about the dynamics pulling, stretching, pushing and compressing the electoral process. We are offered an interesting overview of how the voting process moved along in connection with that election. In particular, I found it very interesting to read the fluctuations of public opinion in the chart that provided approval ratings after each of the publicized debates as the campaign raced to its conclusion. Also, the text was very helpful to understand that the voting process is still very much a process in formation, susceptible to changes and available to improvements, and it is definitely not the forbidding unmovable monolith where voter’s hopes dash to bits without making a dent, as some pessimistic pundits would have us believe. For example, I was dumbstruck to learn that foreign persons had been allowed to cast votes for elections in this country up to the early years of the twentieth century. It seems as if not many years separate us from that reality, but for someone like me, born at the end of the Twentieth Century, such a state of affairs seems almost sacrilegious and insulting. Nonetheless, if the political climate was once favorable to such a mind-bending concept, it gives me hope to understand at last that the realities of our present day can have an impact and effect changes in the manner in which this country conducts its representative-democratic processes, and that we can actually change things for the better.
And the video lesson examples help to understand better the actual weight that personal involvement and political participation have in the democratic process in our country. In the video, we have the opportunity to see the underlying reasoning and purpose of the two opposing sides in the issue of Proposition 215 in California (which, in the main, deals with the legalization of medicinal use of marijuana as an alternative treatment option for some specific medical cases), where some people saw fit to bypass the regular legislative process by placing a proposal in the hands of the voters after being defeated in the regular law-making arena. I was pleasantly surprised to discover that the makers of the video lesson portrayed both sides of the issue in a very rational and compassionate matter, and not painting either side of the issue in a derogatory way by labeling them in any of the common misnomers for people involved in such an issue (the pejoratives “pothead” and “straight-laced ninny” spring to mind unbidden.) Also, we saw the AIM proponents homing on the subject of Columbus’ Day and asking that out of respect for the suffering of many people massacred in his name (or by him, personally) Americans refrain from celebrating a holiday named after what a large demographic sector view as a genocidal maniac. In this example, I was doubly impressed with the video lesson when they decided to portray the main protagonists and antagonists as intelligent and educated humans, and to let the unpleasantness and wrong turns (that I think were inevitable) to be attributed to individual personal choices of some people, instead of showing them as characteristics of a whole sector of the population.
I believe after watching this lesson and reading the textbook that it is up to the media to stop bombarding us with all the negative messages about how one person cannot possibly hope to make a change by sensationalizing failures of this kind when they happen, but instead the media can show us how to triumph by making as much fuss about the instances when personal commitment and effort make a change in the political process and downplaying the unavoidable defeats. I believe the commercial media could learn a lesson or two about presenting a more neutral image of issues by reading our textbook and watching our video lessons. I think, in the present, the mass media outlets are part of the problem when people do not believe in political involvement, and so they can be part of the solution in the future.
Democracy Under Pressure: An Introduction to the American System, 10th Edition, Milton C. Cummings, Jr., David Wise, Thomson