Saturday, September 22, 2012

Shannon Wertz's Question: Democracy, the Importance of Voting, and the Problem of Time

My friend Shannon Wertz of the Great State of Washington asked me this:
Not everyone can be a a political scientist or even informed about EVERYTHING, so there are bound to be people who have gaps in information about current campaigns. If a person isn't very informed about politics or doesn't FEEL very informed "Oh I don't know anything about that...so I don't vote". Is it or isn't it important for them to still vote?
Good question. And I'd say that depends very much on your personal ethics and ideals.  Ultimately, citizenship is a condition - it entails rights or freedoms, on the one hand, and responsibilities on the other.  Some of these responsibilities are obligatory, while others aren't.  In the United States the obligatory ones are pretty well known:
(1) you have to pay your taxes;
(2) you have to obey any laws and submit to the consequences of violating those laws in the instance that you are caught violating them; and
(3) you are not allowed to engage in compulsive behavior (the deprivation of other people's life, liberty, or property) even if they are committing a crime (unless it immediately and definitively threatens your life, liberty, or property) but rather must allow the government to compel on your behalf according to certain legal strictures.
Of course, there are plenty of voluntary rights as well.  You don't have to vote and, if you don't vote, you won't be called into jury duty.  You don't have stand for public office, either elected, appointed, or hired.  You need not express, in a public fashion, your thoughts, critiques, and opinions about, well, anything.  You need not demand information from the folk who do hold public office. And a lot of people don't.

Why don't they?  Well, I think it is easy enough to understand if we use the Athenian democracy as an analog.  Bear with me.

The Athenians, legendarily, employed a direct democracy - everyone who was a citizen participated in every legislative decision, there were relatively few permanent government offices and many of these were filled by lot, and juries on important issues could number in the hundreds, or even include everyone in the citizenry.  There was a catch, however.  The Athenians felt that only those who had enough time to be educated in a well-rounded manner would be able to exercise government properly (at least till the Periclean revolution - but that is another blog, eh?).  So they made a requirement - if you were eligible to be a citizen of Athens you could only express your citizenship by serving as in the Athenian army.

The Athenian army was fascinating.  It was nonprofessional - a militia army, largely made up of the middle-class and wealthy of Athens.  Why?  Because to serve in the military you were obliged to purchase your own armor, shield, and weapons.  The price for these wasn't exorbitant - after all, bronze doesn't have to be replaced every year or so - but it wasn't something you could purchase on a whim either, nor was it something that the poor could easily manage to purchase.

The effect was fairly straightforward.  The Athenians had a population making political decisions that had a few key characteristics.  Citizens were self-selected to be brave, willing to risk their lives for the unit, the group, the city - so speaking in public and taking on responsibilities was less daunting, to say the least. Citizens were well-educated - families that could afford armor could virtually always afford an excellent education for their children in the various fields of study which were intended to prepare a citizen for the exercise of their rights and responsibilities in a free polity - those fields we lump together today as the basis of a liberal arts education (education for the free life).  Finally, citizens were all people who had extra time - they were not people obliged to spend every waking moment working in order to fulfill their basic needs of shelter, food, clean water, clothing, and so forth.  These were citizens who could remain appraised of the news, engage in discussion and debate, and so forth - they could be politically engaged.

Sounds like a good system at first, doesn't it?  And certainly it has a lot to say for it.  Save for one thing - it completely disenfranchises the poor and the hardest working.  No spare time or money?  No say in the government.  The result was that the Athenian government consistently ignored the needs of their poorer classes, making them more likely to support anti-democratic leaders who promised to support them - the seed of destruction.

The United States was originally much more like democratic Athens.  Citizenship was limited to white men, and the exercise was limited according to property requirements.  Gradually, this has changed, after wars, riots, marches, and upheaval.  The effect has been to give the poor and the comparatively weak the opportunity to exercise their rights.  But often, too often, the poor either do not exercise their rights at all (often being ignorant of them) or exercise them in blindness, unaware of the implications and real problems at hand, falling for rhetoric rather than substance, meaning that the power of the poor and the individually weak merely becomes an attribute of the wealthy and the individually powerful.  This is a tragedy in and of itself.

Well, there is only one answer for it.  In politics, there is an old saying - those with power never give it freely.  While this is perhaps an overstatement, there is a lot of truth in it as well.  Similarly, there is another saying - knowledge is power.  This is quite true.

The implication?  If you are disenfranchised, disenchanted, or ignorant of politics out of the natural condition of IW2DH (I work too damn hard....), you have to tighten your intellectual belt, give up a little free time, and make a real effort to educate yourself about the issues.  It won't be easy or fun, necessarily, but it is worth it - putting aside any ethical obligation to perform one's citizenry duties, it is just common sense - no one is going to give you power if you don't take it, but people will make political decisions that affect you every day.

So, how do you do this, how do you make time?  I recommend something straight forward.  Pick three, four, or five days a week and make yourself read the news.  Don't watch it - read it.  I recommend for the news-newby in particular Al Jazeera, the Atlantic, BBC, The Christian Science Monitor, CNN, The Economist, Foreign Policy, the New York Times, Newshour, and The Washington Post - there are links to all on my blog.  There are a lot of others, but these have a nice variety of opinions, perspectives, goals, and ends and, by reading them, you can get a lot more information faster - after all, video and audio media includes a lot of things to make it interesting that slow down the pace - they're great if you have time, but if you don't, well, you don't.  You'll also want to read (1) your major local sources of news and (2) the official platforms of candidates running in the upcoming elections (this last one will take more time than you'd like and less time than you'd think - trust me).

Guess what - you do this, you're pretty much an informed voter.  It'd be great if you had time to pursue a deep liberal arts agenda, and I do recommend it ultimately, but in the meantime knowing the truth, and nothing more, is a big deal.  Enough of a big deal that, in my opinion, you'll be able to make a decision worth making on election day.