Thoughts on democracy from a post-communist country
One thing that is interesting about being an American and a traveller is that, given the fact that our country's policies affect people the world over, other people you meet have no qualms about telling you their opinion on American politics and culture. Sometimes you get defensive, other times you divulge in some good America bashing, but it always makes you think afterward. So, this morning, when I took a look at the New York Times and remembered it is still election season in America, I began to think about a lot of things: my disappointment in the man I voted for four years ago, the different systems of government and community I have seen in the past three months and the state of American politics in general.
In the U.S. we seem to want to have a fundamental debate about what government is, should it be bigger or smaller? Should we give it more money or less? Are the people we currently pay to worry about the logistics (congessmen) capable of doing that? Those are important questions, but all have one common theme- they treat government as if it is a separate entity, something that exists independently of us. It was never supposed to be this way. To be an American means we signed a contract to live in a democracy, a government by the people, which means that first and foremost we are government. We demanded a guarantee that we would be able to more or less do and say what we want as long as that doesn't keep anyone else pursuing what he/she wants. This was radical at the time it came into place, and, actually, it still is. Most people do not live in a place where they have that guarantee. But, it is not free. We are obligated, in return, to stay informed, actively participate in political, social and financial dialogue and speak up whenever you have the chance. It is hard, it's a full-time job, which is why we have elected representatives whom we pay to work out the specifics. Their existence, however, certainly doesnt mean its not our job anymore. It is still, and should be treated as such, a part-time job to be a citizen. You dont just relegate the job to your congressman/woman and forget about it, and you certainly just dont trust them to do it the right way.
One reason, I think, people tend to forget it is their job is because we focus on the federal government as the only means of governing. How many of you can name your elected representative, your mayor or a member of your school board? I studied political science and, i hate to say it, but i definitely could not name all three. Government isnt just Obama and congress, in fact they actually do the least amout of governing, government is society- its all around. You are governing when you decide to drive to work instead of voting to encourage public transportation, you are governing when you decide where your kid goes to school or where you get your food from. Those are all forms of voting. You are actively engaging in government by reading this blog and supporting a free and democratic internet. We govern ourselves and each other everyday, we just don't see it that way. It impossible to be just an observer.
So if a congressman was doing his job the way you are doing your job as a citizen, what would your approval rating be? Mine would be miserably low. We go through the motions, we dont look around and think/analyze/critique/question. To blame "government" is a cop out because if it has gotten this far, it means we havent been doing our job. It's election season, the best time to wake up and plug into the political process. No matter what side of the political spectrum you are on, odds are there is something unqiely American you find worth preserving (hopefully more than one). Here is a mix of some things I have come up with to be a better, more engaged citizen and, also, just things I have learned about which are worth thinking about:
1) How do you feel about the fact that we vote electronically now on computers, with no paper trail and no access to the make up of the software?
2) Research the White House's No Fly List
3) How important is the preservation of a free, democractic internet to our society?
4) Read the Patriot Act, section 802 and ask youself if it reminds you of another government in history.
5) Its boring I know, but think about campaign finance reform
6) Why isnt election day a federal holiday?
7) We are the only Western democracy which encourages its citizens to say a pledge of allegiance. Think about the idea of a pledge of allegiance and ask yourself how you feel about it.
On a more positive note...
1) Research and vote!
2) Bring up a random political topic at dinner tonight and discuss it with family/friends.
3) Read a source of news you wouldnt normally read today (Al-Jazeera, BBC, random political blog) even if, ESPECIALLY IF, it contradicts what you believe
4) Find out when the next city council meeting is and attend with a friend
Living in an abandoned post-communist village has really given me a new perspective on the U.S. It's cool to be political!
On a different note, is there a Bulgarian monsoon season I was blissfully unaware of?