In Friday’s edition, The Badger Herald paid a tribute of sorts to Rosemary Lee. For those unfamiliar with Lee, she is quite possibly Madison’s most active participant in city government outside of elected officials. Given her regular attendance at city council meetings and constant contact with her alderman, simply calling Lee a participant in democracy would be an understatement.
However, the recognition of Rosemary Lee for little more than an engagement in public discourse calls into question American government’s disregard for and disenfranchisement of its citizenry.
Democracy is not perfect. To guarantee a true representation of every citizen is impossible. However, one has to decide the point at which a democracy becomes so exclusive that it can no longer claim legitimacy.
The United States has long taken its democracy for granted. Americans seem willing to question the conduct of elected officials, the importance of issues addressed by lawmakers and the culture of politics in general, but never the status of their democracy. At a time when the U.S. is arrogantly parading around the globe, providing “democracy” by force, perhaps Americans should reconsider the concept to which they so thoughtlessly pay lip service.
According to USAtoday.com, just under 60 percent of eligible voters participated in the 2004 elections. If this seems low, consider that it was the highest percentage turnout since 1968. How can people be so certain their government is a democracy when 40 percent of eligible voters are not heard in what is considered a “high-turnout” election?
In addition to a lack of participation, American democracy is plagued by a plethora of impurities. With the malfunctioning of voting machines, the barring of foreign monitors from the polls and use of confusing ballots, even many of those who choose to vote are incorrectly accounted for. These glitches, however, can be considered little more than hiccups in comparison to much broader barriers to true democracy in the U.S.
Engineered by politicians, American democracy is incredibly friendly to career lawmakers. In the two-party system, U.S. legislators can rest assured that, as long as they grease enough elbows, there’s a high chance that they’ll be rewarded with job security via their party’s support. Additionally, the congressional redistricting of many U.S. states is not done by a non-partisan commission, but rather by the politicians who hold a majority in these states’ legislatures. This process virtually ensures the reelection of congressmen fortunate enough to have been on the winning side. A byproduct of this quid pro quo party system is a very restricted opportunity for voters to have a true impact.
The reelection of President George W. Bush in 2004 perfectly illustrates the limitations of voters’ choices. Many Americans were so disillusioned with the Bush administration that any candidate opposing the president would easily have won their full support. However, even in the politically polarized atmosphere that was November 2004, there were still countless voters who felt that neither candidate shared their interests.
Given that no viable third-party candidate existed, these people were completely alienated. Further, considering that the Electoral College — not the popular vote — decides an election, many of those who happened to strongly support a candidate were disregarded, as all of their state’s electoral votes went to a different candidate.
Despite all of the hurdles that must be cleared, it is certainly not too late for democracy to flourish in the U.S. With a few modest reforms and the development of a competitive third party, American democracy, although far from perfect, would much better represent Americans. Perhaps the most important step toward this end is the simple recognition by U.S. citizens of their system’s shortcomings.
Nobody is advocating that every American become a Rosemary Lee, but maybe people should reconsider a system in which Rosemary Lee can become famous for participating in government.
Rob Rossmeissl ([email protected]) is a senior majoring in political science.