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People Get the Government They Deserve

A few thoughts to keep in mind as Floridians head to the polls next week.

It's a close paraphrase of Alexis de Toucqueville's thoughts about elections in a representative republic (like the U.S., for instance). As the over-hyped, media-blanketed, and probably useless "primary" rounds of voting continue, this quote is thrown into sharp relief for people casting ballots for their preferred (cherished?) candidates.

Go to any Hillsborough County library -- or simply pass by, even at 50 mph, and you'll likely be assaulted by signs and poster-board wavers, similar to what's pictured here outside Jimmy B. Keel Regional Library, where it seems every inch of available space near the entrance is staked out. Reminiscent of a pep rally, and no, I'm not suggesting, as our hyperbolic culture is wont to do, that it's "worse than ever" or something of that nature. This kind of "campaigning" has been around for the nation's entire history.

But pairing the forests of campaign signs and eager advocates outside public libraries (a whole other unsettling issue) with the grandiose spectacle that "primary season" inevitably becomes, it seems like the common goals and aspirations of most citizens are shunted aside.

I'm certainly not the first person to point this out, I ought to mention, and analogies between national elections and American Idol are old hat by this point. But how much of the so-called democratic process becomes obscured when voters latch onto a particular candidate -- who, at best, embodies only a vague collection of promises, values, beliefs and potential -- as opposed to considering the shared desires of a people and how best to meet them, and casting votes accordingly?

It seems like the game-show/talk-show atmosphere engendered by these primaries and their attendant debates (most recently at the campus of the University of South Florida) cheerfully submerges reason and measured debate in favor of name-calling, cheers and whoops from the audience at inappropriate moments. This then focuses attention on the spectacles willingly created by the candidates rather than the issues at hand for the nation.

My italics in the previous sentence are a deliberate emphasis. This goes beyond the usual cliche of disparaging them for relentless ad homeneim attacks and instead speaks to our own obsession with individuals and personalities. Children learn in school (and, ideally, in the same libraries where they are now beseiged by colorful placards) about how civic government works, about its venerated history in this country, and about how public debate and election are supposed to operate. Instead, in their adult realities, they will most likely buy into the fallacy that a single person is a fixed, static, tangible rendering of all their hopes, dreams, and concerns.

The candidates know this and prey on it. They don't want voters to think critically; they prefer the electorate beholden to slogans, simplistic aphorisms, and absurd one-liners such as "9-9-9" (although that is thankfully behind us).

So as Florida Republicans head to the polls on the 31st to help "elect" the new flavor-of-the-month-til-the-next-primary, hopefully if they cast their ballots at one of our fine public libraries, they'll take time to pull out books like de Tocqueville's Democracy in America, or any of the works of Rousseau or Jefferson. The principle is the same as a curious Christian perhaps immersing himself in the works of Augustine or Martin Luther, following up on interesting ideas they've heard mentioned from the pulpit.

Their tax dollars afford them that learning opportunity, and maybe if they aren't already, they can familiarize themselves with how our own representative state has evolved to its present form, and maybe, if only for their children's or future children's sakes, decide how best to preserve and uphold those lofty ideals.



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Paul Streicher February 10, 2012 at 12:16 AM
Great article. Says it all. But, in reality, we all know that when anyone gets into politics, the money game starts and the biggest money gets the vote. It's gotten too big to ignore. It's a sorry state of affairs in our country today. We can only hope for courageous revolution by those that enter politics in the future.
Christopher Nank February 12, 2012 at 04:10 PM
Thanks, Paul! You're right, those motivations and dynamics are pretty well hard-wired into the current system, sadly.

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