When your home is a democracy, you must vote
By Mary Croke marycroke@home.com


Well, it looks as if we've gotten ourselves into a bit of a fix, doesn't it? We voted into office a president who can't seem to stop embarrassing us. And we're not so pleased with the others we sent to Washington, either.

A real strength of a democratic system is that it allows us to vote out destructive people. But right now is the hot, told-you-so moment to remember one of the weaknesses of a democratic system: It encourages salesmen to run for office. We vote for them thinking they're heroes -- gee, they sure look like heroes -- then discover they're just energetic folks with egos of heroic dimensions. Not everyone, of course, but the tendency is clear. Truth counts, but persuasion counts more.

This is all a little beside the point. The main point is that the buck stops with us. We are the ones affected. We benefit if our representatives are good, and we suffer if they're bad.

So if everything looks like a big fat mess, where do we turn? Self-pity? Cynicism? Apathy? Do any of these get anyone anywhere? It's not as if we can just pick up our marbles and go home. We are home, and the home we live in is a democracy, and that means we have some control over our circumstances.

Here's the hitch: Having any measure of control means being sensible voters. That isn't so easy in a country as big as ours or in a world as complex as ours. It means being generally informed about the current goings-on, and it means having a basic understanding of concepts such as separation of powers and rule of law. Probably most difficult, it means understanding in a nuts-and-bolts, no-free-lunch way how an economy works, since almost all policy decisions have economic components and consequences.

This is a tall order. What if one's educational background is full of holes? Who has time to do all that reading?

I live with a mind full of ifs, ands or buts that thinks if it doesn't understand most of something, it doesn't know enough. I frequently dwell in an uncomfortable world of tentative conclusions, certainly where politics is concerned. And this is the world I take with me into the voting booth.

I vote partly because I think the simple act of participation matters, even when I'm not so sure I'm as sensible as I need to be. Participation is a tossing-out experience -- not in the sense of throwing something away but rather in the sense of putting our best effort forth. It's acting in good faith.

If we don't participate, that means we're not being represented. And if we're not being represented, what's to stop us from becoming alienated? And how long can a democracy last with a population of alienated voters?

We live in a country with a historically anomalous, relatively delicate tradition: government by the people. We think it is normal and blatantly obvious that this should be so. It is not. It does not exist everywhere. And it may not exist in our future.