Now you can read us on your iPhone and iPad! Check out the BTRtoday app.
Fifty relatively autonomous states is a ridiculous notion. Local politics are vital yet ignored, presidential elections are consumed like porn but simultaneously offer poor voter turnout. Despite lingering optimism in what America represents for freedom and self-government, it seems we have outgrown our form of representative democracy.
Americans don’t participate nearly as much in local and state elections compared to the national circus. The past century has seen consistently lower voter turnout for midterm elections than presidential.
There are a few reasons for the imbalance. The first and perhaps most obvious is the national media, which easily dominates local news. According to Colin Woodard, author of “American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America,” the collapse of the business model of newspapers is largely to blame, because as he tells BTRtoday, that model provided “the most substantive coverage of local levels of government.”
Even smaller media outlets are often funded by national advertisers and, as Woodard puts it, “there has been a shrinkage in the bandwidth and local broadcasting,” both with television and newspapers, “so it’s not particularly lucrative state or local politics in the traditional commercial model, whether that is newspaper, television, or radio.”
As a result, he says, “most Americans probably have no idea who their representatives to the state legislature are, even though those people’s decisions have a substantial effect on their lives.”
This gap in political awareness leads to the second reason most Americans aren’t involved on a local level: there is a perception that national issues are more important. Media slants favor a nationalistic myopia that eclipses smaller issues like local boards, education spending, and infrastructure, despite the direct and vital concern they play for voters.
This gap in coverage and perceived importance results in the third reason, which is that it is logistically harder for citizens to inform themselves about local politics than national.
“We assume the citizenry to have a much better understanding of the political system than they do,” says Richard John, professor of American political history and communications at Columbia University.“The [political] parties serve as sorting mechanisms to help the voters make sense of the issues. That’s the system that we’ve established, especially at the state level.” Nevertheless, he says, “the idea that citizens are going to decide on a very large number of issues is not the way, realistically, American politics typically unfold.”
John would like to see more media coverage of state and local politics, “for those citizens who wish to apprise themselves of relevant issues.” He also believes this would help reduce political corruption, because corrupt public figures would be more thoroughly “monitored” for fraud and abuse of the political system.
It is hardly comforting to think that our collective ignorance is not entirely our fault as individuals but instead a symptom of a deeply faulted political system.
The bright side is we don’t need to worry about disappointing Mom and Dad. According to John, “the premise that there is some maximalist division of democratic participation that we have fallen short of” was never expected of us by the Founding Fathers. We were never expected to be continually and intimately involved in policymaking. “The fundamental obligation of the citizenry,” explains John, “is to spot demagogues.”
He continues, “If you have somebody running for office who is running on the basis of appeals that are clearly intended to incite electorate and who is clearly motivated by self-interest and megalomania, that’s what the Founders wanted the citizenry to be able to detect.” In other words, they looked at Trump and designed the Constitution around telling him off.
Trump’s rise would suggest that we are failing our most basic function as members of this nation.
Then again, the Founders never envisioned a flag with 50 stars. The United States was to remain on the Eastern seaboard and perhaps extend to the Mississippi River, says John. Such a limited space confined their vision to the assumption that politicians would regularly interact face-to-face with their constituents.
Obviously that was not how the U.S. turned out.
Woodard believes a parliamentary system would be more logically accommodating to the size and diversity of the U.S. He suggests to BTRtoday that a multitude of political parties united by a prime minister more easily removed than a president might do better. “You could have Greens, Libertarians, (Neo-)Liberals, Christian Democrats, Social Democrats, far-right Nationalists, etc., [that] would likely be more representative and effective.”
Both Woodard and John suggest that a proportional voting system would help foster the rise of such third-party politics, because then 20 percent of the electorate could elect a representative who aligned with their views.
In the end though, both men are skeptical of any other system that the one we have. “We can’t snap our fingers,” says Woodard, “because the constitution is almost impossible to change, particularly given the lack of consensus and considerable distrust that exists between our component regional cultures.” He makes it clear that he is not prescribing a dissolution of the states.
“My view of human nature is not optimistic enough to allow for the assumption that a U.S. breakup would be peaceful,” he admits.
As for John, he returns to the obligation of the members of the union to vet their leaders. Even in a country substantially larger and differently shaped than the one envisioned several hundred years ago, John believes that it remains “the fundamental obligation of the citizenry to oppose unsuitable public figures and to make judgements about character.”
So the United States of America can stay, as long as we all do our one job and vote Trump off the island.