Community Columnist: We're responsible for our democracy

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Jim Black | October 25, 2016

In light of current world struggles, and the woeful state of the U.S. presidential race, it would seem an understatement to say that in this country, democracy is taken for granted.

Patriotism is certainly rampant, but democracy? It's like an atrophied hand, too weak to reach across the aisle or to even pull a voting lever.

 The political bar has been lowered so far, only a backhoe could let it sink further. How did we get to this point? A completely partisan Congress with no inclination to compromise — no matter what is best for the nation — and two hugely unpopular candidates.

Maybe it's the fault of the political parties' methods of choosing their candidate for president. The process itself is not democratic. Why are there super-delegates? Why are there caucuses?

Maybe it's the fault of the media. Even Thomas Jefferson realized the importance of information when he wrote that “knowledge is power ... knowledge is safety, and ... knowledge is happiness.” Of course, once knowledge became valuable, it became a commodity as well.

In order to have knowledge, one must have credible information. According to the Pew Research Center, the majority of U.S. adults watch local and network news.

However, in a ratings-driven industry, a 30-minute “newscast” is really only 22 minutes when commercial time is eliminated. That time is further whittled away by feel-good stories, weather, sports, etc. Viewers are then spoon fed what information network executives deem relevant.

Maybe it's our fault. When it comes to voting, the United States ranks 120th out of 169 countries that have data on voter turnout. Among the 35 most developed countries, we rank 31st.

Most countries with higher turnout do not require voter registration. Proof of citizenship is enough. Argentina and Australia have mandatory voting with a small fine for those who don't comply. Granted, while some citizens see voting as a patriotic duty, we also have the right not to vote.

When polls ask people why they don't vote, many say it is inconvenient or that their one vote won't matter. More than 50 million people did not vote in the last presidential election, which included representatives on local, state and federal levels. You don't have to be particularly good at math to realize how even a small percentage of those non-votes could change the course of a country.

A majority of people who rarely vote or aren't registered say they don't feel that they have enough information or know enough about the candidates. That's not surprising if they rely on a few minutes of sound bites and commentary to inform them about issues that affect them directly and indirectly.

And then there's social media; flooded with political memes containing, for the most part, out-of-context quotes, misinformation and outright lies from both sides. Because viewers see completely contradictory messages regarding the same issues and candidates, eligible voters don't know what to believe.

Ironically, the internet could be used to gather reliable information and analysis. At the very least, one could fact check a candidate's claim. However, for people who find it inconvenient to go to a polling place, it is unlikely they will take the time to research an issue even if they have access to the internet.

It is evident that there is no lack of opinions in this country — just not many based on reliable information — and that includes the candidates.

As citizens who value democracy, we need to empower ourselves with fact-based knowledge. Maybe then we can elect representatives who will put their nation before their party.

Jim Black is a writer who lives in the village of Walworth


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