Don’t know if you’ve heard, but there’s an election Nov. 4. Although it combines the so-called “midterm” federal races with a full slate of local ones, there’s surprisingly little enthusiasm being manifested by the electorate over the chance to control its political destiny.
According to inquisitive Gallup, only 33 percent of those polled said they were giving some thought to voting in 2014, as compared to 46 percent in 2010 and 42 percent in 2006. Some other disquieting numbers, compliments of Pew Research: only 5 percent of you guys aged 18-29 are following the 2014 elections closely. That’s not much leverage for changing the world.
Why don’t people care about midterms? Given most folks’ low opinion of Congress, it’s hard to get fired up about sending anybody subsidized by taxpayers to participate — or fail to — in the carnival atop Capitol Hill. That’s especially true when the TV news outfits from which many people glean their perspective are concentrating on more sensational topics, such as Ebola virus or Islamic State snuff tapes.
What’s easy to overlook is that the machinery of government dealing with threats both microbial and military is facilitated by that same Congress we detest, and if we don’t elect people of good judgment to sit in those 535 chairs, the machinery is in danger of failing altogether.
America is a nation of term limits, stated up front in Article 1 of the Constitution. What the Founding Fathers did not need to state was that it would be up to the people to enforce those term limits by voting in elections; after all the trouble Americans had incurred to win the right to vote, they were initially eager to exercise the franchise.
In our Sixth District, where a citizenry on auto pilot returned Spencer Bachus to Congress 11 times, 2014 represents a cleaning of the slate, as Republicans field Gary Palmer, co-founder of the right-wing Alabama Policy Institute, and Democrats offer Mark Lester, a former Assistant U.S. Attorney. We shall write more of this contest later, but for now, note the interesting option for a voter: no incumbent is running. In this district, as in few others nationwide, there is an opportunity to set a new agenda (or, as Spencer’s detractors might observe, to actually have an agenda for a change).
There is no similar option in our U.S. Senate race, since no state Democrat apparently thought it possible to wrest power from Jeff Sessions, which, given the millions of dollars in the incumbent’s campaign war chest and the millions more available from deep pockets on the right, seems a logical decision. (Before you castigate the Democrats for spinelessness, note as well that no Republican could be found to oppose him in June’s party primary.)
That a career hack such as Sessions gets an unimpeded pass contributes to the cynical notion that a citizen’s vote doesn’t count anymore. Ask Shelia Smoot how wrong that bromide is. If she’d had but 27 more, out of nearly 8,000 cast, she’d be on the County Commission instead of stuck in the vineyard of sour grapes.
The major national contest is for control of the U.S. Senate, currently subject to a slim Democratic majority. One-third of the seats are up for grabs, but many are foregone conclusions, thanks to the aforementioned power of incumbency. Bloomberg News surmises that only eight states out of 34 have Senate races still in flux, which means that the voters of New Hampshire, North Carolina, Iowa, Kansas, Arkansas, Louisiana, Colorado and Alaska will determine the immediate future of the senior legislative body. About 10 million people in these states voted in the last midterms, so it looks as though control of the Senate depends upon a number of voters smaller than the population of Florida. Democracy is a crazy thing.
Perhaps that’s why there are so many politicians unenthusiastic about democracy. These are the quibblers who want to tell you up front that America is not really a democracy, but a constitutional republic, and that maybe too many people are being allowed to vote. Among the many forms of voter suppression pursued with gusto across the country are voter ID laws, restriction of early voting and strictures on provisional ballots. In his 2011 book, The Ethics of Voting, Jason Brennan suggested that citizens do not have a duty to vote and that an under-informed voter is, in essence, acting immorally.
Then there’s a provocative statement by former Attorney General John Ashcroft last month, telling a group of concerned Christians that America has misplaced its core values. “We seem to think democracy is the ultimate value. … It’s not the ultimate value,” he said. “Liberty is; the value with which God endowed us at creation.”
So, at a time when democracy is getting short shrift nationwide, it’s exhilarating to see it manifested in a positive way in Homewood, where Liz Ellaby writes for a blog called Homewood At Large.
When The Birmingham News downsized and downshifted in 2012, it became either unwilling or unable to cover local happenings with the same detail it had provided as a daily print entity with bureaus throughout Jefferson and Shelby counties. Ellaby, a Homewood resident and former News reporter, rather than bemoan the loss of information about her town, chose to take action. She and like-minded residents decided to become an online source of news for Homewood, attending local government meetings and reporting such activities in detail almost as soon as the meetings are concluded.
There’s no money in it, but that’s not Liz Ellaby’s motivation. She just wants her neighbors to know what’s being done in their name by their city’s leaders. She wants facts to be known and information to be shared. It’s a tradition even older than our constitutional republic, and a reminder that each one of us can make a difference in our communities, if only we will. It’s what they used to call democracy in action.