11/09/2010 by Elizabeth Sholes

Confused voters need a crash course in democracy

The election is over, and what happened? No one has much of an answer, since voters appear to be deeply confused and conflicted about what government means in our lives, especially in California. The assertion of wants collides with a phobia about paying for them; the desire to end gridlock conflicts with a mistrust of elected leaders’ ability to make good decisions. We want to “protect” local funding without understanding that such protection could kill off state and federally-funded programs that could care for those we are mandated to serve. Voters insist we can do more for less, but we never learn how that is possible. Magical thinking never solved a single problem.

At the heart of our confusion lies a fundamental lack of engagement with core issues of what government is all about. Philosophical differences are the crux of partisan loyalty, but we appear universally ignorant of how government operates in a democracy. We bemoan deficits but create them. We demand services but forbid elected officials to pay for them. We cannot perceive that every shackle we throw onto those whom we elect makes them less effective at listening to us rather than more. We have bound legislators with laws that are older than the majority of Californians then wonder why, as times change, nothing works.

We did take a key step in restoring sanity. By returning budget approval to a majority vote, we have greatly improved access to efficiency and accountability. We have also ended the nasty business of making “deals” in exchange for votes. On the other hand, we still do not trust our elected leaders to actually lead, so we voted to make all fees – payments you individually do not have to make - subject to supermajority votes. Good luck getting toxic spills cleaned up next to your house. We can no longer impose fees on irresponsible polluters without a vote. You don’t even pay the fee – but now neither will the violator.

If we don’t trust government in a democracy, then why even bother having democracy at all? It is far less efficient and much more erratic than would be a good, sound, benevolent king. Those of us whose concern is for justice made manifest in good laws and budgets would probably see more justice done under a wise ruler than we often see under cranky, irritable voter choices.

If we value democracy as an essential good that lets us all have a voice in our governance, then let that value be exercised in wisdom, not in fear, and especially not in ignorance. The conflicted outcomes of this election are not hopeful. We insist in opinion polls that we make better decisions via the ballot than do our legislators at the Capitol - but, then, most of us think we’re better than average drivers, too. Any rush hour, any election, we can see how well our delusions are working out.

Elizabeth Sholes is the director of public policy for the California Council of Churches/California Church IMPACT.

Categories: Democracy, Civic Engagement, Elections, Civic Engagement, Elections

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