What This Is…
Issue #83- October 14, 2012
In this issue: Democracy at Risk, Charter School in Madison?, Support Walmart Workers
A Crisis For Our Democracy…
We live in a time period when everything that happens seems to be a crisis, the most important…, or some grave threat to our way of life. Of course there are some recent events that are historical in their proportions, but with the constant blaring of 24/7 TV and radio shows, combined with the instant commentary on the internet, it is often difficult to see the real significance of any event/policy/individual. The competition to be the first to cover a story or to offer some different analysis means that we are flooded with constant hype and rhetoric.
Having said that, it appears that we are at a definite crisis point in our nation's electoral process. America is a remarkable nation when it comes to the election of new officials and the transferring of power. We have developed an elaborate system for electing our leaders and (even though many of us don't bother to vote) for the most part Americans have supported and trusted this process. Our democratic traditions have allowed us to endure significant turmoil and heated debate, while avoiding widespread bloodshed and civil unrest. A case may be made that there are other, perhaps more sinister, forces that play a role in this as well, but in the end we have developed a relatively peaceful way of putting new leaders in power. This is especially true when you look at other places around the world and the conflicts that erupt as power is transferred or seized.
Like all human creations, our electoral system has a checkered past and a few inherent flaws. We've excluded entire groups from participating and witnessed significant corruption during our nation's history. The system isn't perfect, but at the same time is a process that we can work with and that allows for citizens to voice their opinion in a positive and potentially meaningful way.
Like most aspects of our nation's government and political structure, the electoral process has seen its share of successes as well as challenges. What makes our current situation such a crisis in our political development?
Trust in the System- As I mentioned before, our electoral system has never been free of corruption and/or scandal. If we admit that power has a potentially corrupting influence, then it is logical that at least some of those interested in achieving powerful positions will be corrupt as well. We've all read about the scandals that have happened in our history and comments about things like "Chicago Politics" or "Political Bosses" aren't met with surprise. We all recognize that there are individuals and groups that will do just about anything to gain, and hold on to power.
What makes the current erosion of trust in our electoral system potentially disastrous is that it isn't the candidates involved who are being questioned (that's an important part of the process), it's the system itself and the results of our elections that are under fire. Conservatives have made it a point to question the validity of elections because of the "rampant voter fraud" that they claim exists (but have little evidence for). Their solution…voter ID and other restrictions on voting rights.
Liberals and progressives find flaws on the other end of the voting path, the counting of ballots. There are significant concerns about the accuracy of the vote tallies as well as the ability to alter the voting totals by "hacking" the machines. These concerns have been visibly demonstrated in numerous elections recently.
Whatever the issues about our electoral system may be, the concern is that we are headed down a path where the results of our elections are not viewed as legitimate. Without meaningful elections is it possible for us to claim we have a democracy here in America? We need to restore the faith that people have in the process or risk undermining the foundation of our political system.
Participation in the System- At the same time we are facing a crisis in confidence in our electoral system, we also face the ongoing reality that many Americans are simply not participating in the process. What is considered a good turnout on election day is often less than half of the potential voters. This obviously results in skewed election results that favor a mobilized base that consistently votes, while the majority of the citizens of our nation simply accept the results as they occur. Even in "high turnout" elections we don't get the participation that our democracy needs to be a true representation of the general public.
The results of this voter apathy are skewed results that represent a minority of the population. We also see our elected officials losing their accountability to the people they are supposed to be representing. If most people don't vote, then those elected only need to represent the interests of a small, well connected few. The long term effects of this are clear as our leaders become more insulated from their constituents and more susceptible to the influence of their donors and vocal supporters.
There are many reasons that people don't participate in the current system, but as a nation we need to change this pattern in order to regain control of a system that is currently governed by special interests. Recent efforts have been made to limit participation in the electoral process, but we have also seen actions designed to encourage voters to become informed and involved.
Another huge problem is the lack of knowledge that many citizens have in how our government works and what the candidates who are running stand for. The electorate is divided between those who are firmly entrenched in opposite camps. At the same time there is a significant number of "independent", "undecided" voters who are drifting between candidates and who are susceptible to propaganda and the, often unreliable, information put out by candidates and the media.
Money and its Corrupting Influence- We can't ignore the impact that big money has on our political system. Citizens United has changed the political landscape and made our system one that is ripe for purchase by the highest bidder. This doesn't change the fact that we still elect our leaders and representatives and as citizens need to actively seek out accurate information and recognize what our candidates stand for. Money is only one of the reasons our system is declining and we need to stop using it as an excuse. There are many candidates and activists working to counter the influence that large donations have and we should be working to support their efforts.
Confidence in our Candidates and Political Parties- With all the negative advertising, conflicting information and mudslinging in politics today, it is no wonder that many Americans are disgusted and fed up with politics. Almost all parties and candidates seem to have changed their campaign strategies away from promoting themselves to attacking their opponent. This means that we potentially lose our ability to make a choice between ideas and instead vote out of fear or hatred. Too many voters see their choices as an opportunity to vote for the lesser of two evils.
Media Coverage and Lack of Accurate Information- Our major media outlets often seem more like gossip magazines and are more focused on small relatively petty issues or surface data than they are on the underlying realities that shape candidates platforms or policies. In depth, investigative reporting based on facts doesn't seem to get the attention that opinion driven, shallow stories garner. Whatever the reason, our media outlets have limited their coverage to sound bites and short pieces that repeat information that is given to them by political parties, candidates or special interests. Anyone who is directly involved in an ongoing story being covered by the news immediately recognizes the differences between the reality experienced and the "reality" reported.
What Do We Do?- All of these problems add up to a significant problem in our electoral system. The only real answer is for the people of America to decide that they are not going to be manipulated any more. People of all political beliefs must recognize that it is only a small minority of citizens who are benefiting from the current trends in the system. The good of the many is not being served by the direction our nation is heading. If we are going to get the government we truly deserve we must be willing to fight for it.
Our fight starts by finding accurate sources of information, challenging ourselves to listen to other viewpoints and being an informed voter. We need to be able to discuss politics with others who may not agree with us. We must communicate our concerns to our elected representatives in articulate and persuasive ways. We also must be willing to organize and exert our collective influence when necessary. The statement "United We Stand, Divided We Fall" has never been more true.
New Madison Charter School?…
I don't know enough about the situation to make any real commentary about it, but the Madison Board of Education is meeting on Monday 10/15 to discuss making changes in the programming at Toki Middle School. These changes could result in the school becoming a charter school. This is a development that is of obvious concern to all of us who fear the potential for privatization of our public schools, and bears careful watching and monitoring.
Stand With Walmart Workers…
No single company is more representative of the current conflict between corporations, their employees and the well being of our nation than Walmart. Most of Walmart's employees don't make a living wage and they frequently require public assistance to supplement their low wages. The company pulls in huge amounts of money, and at the same time benefits from negotiated tax breaks. Companies that supply products to Walmart are pressured to produce more at a lower cost, thus harming workers at other companies. Walmart eliminates competitors and drives local businesses out of the market. Yet, there are those who would hold up Walmart as an example of the "American Free Market" and the success it can bring (to a small number at the expense of many).
Walmart workers are starting to organize and fight back. These workers need our support.