Thursday, September 17, 2009

Citizenship Day

Today is a federal holiday with the rather absurd and confusing dual name of Constitution Day and Citizenship Day. The purpose of this holiday isn’t entirely clear, but the date is significant as the anniversary of the signing of the Constitution of the United States on September 17, 1787. That is certainly an historical event worth pondering.

The Constitution defined what it means to be a citizen. Two centuries later, it’s worth asking ourselves a few relevant questions, such as, “What does a good ‘citizen’ of the United States do?”

Does a good citizen vote?

In recent decades, the largest turnout of eligible voters for national elections has been about 60%. That means at least 40% habitually choose not to exercise their most basic right and responsibility to participate in national decision making.

Is a good citizen well informed?

As of July, according to, nearly 60% of the members of one of the two major political parties weren’t sure if the current president was born in the United States. (Some were deluded by one of many rampant conspiracy theories, and others may have forgotten that Hawaii is a state.) Besides this and similar trivial matters so dear to the national media, there are much more serious issues on which a very large number of Americans are either ignorant or misinformed—from the meaning of “socialism” to the causes of global climate change.

Does a good citizen bargain in good faith about issues important for the health of the country?

Ask Max Baucus, who stood alone yesterday as he delivered the conclusions of the long-awaited “bipartisan” health reform proposal produced by the so-called “Gang of Six.” It’s abundantly clear to most observers—although perhaps not to Senator Baucus himself--that he’s spent several months of this life presiding over a very public charade, enacted to appease the 40% of the Senate who want to preserve the status quo and will go to any lengths to oppose constructive change.

It seems that on many possible measures of good citizenship, the best we can do as a nation is a feeble 60%. On this day, perhaps it would be worthwhile to consider what we can do to improve those numbers.


Anonymous said...

Why do we want to improve the number/perentage of voters? I never have really understood the, 'just go vote' manatra... most Americans have very little knowledge of the real issues and at best can only recite campaign slogans. Honestly, if you don't really know what you are voting for (or against), please stay home!!!!!!

Sue said...

When you look at the average number of issues on the ballot of most elections -- federal, state, local -- it's no wonder that so many voters are "uninformed." It would take full-time study just to try to figure out what they were all about. Maybe the best way to get good citizenship (with educated and involved citizens) would be to keep elections simpler; separate federal, state, and local elections; put initiatives and referendums on their own ballots, and allow people to vote for only those races/issues they feel strongly (and educated) about. Sure, it might cost a bit more, but in the long run it might be a lot less expensive than having uneducated voters marking ballots virtually at random And maybe we could limit TV advertising and channel some of that money to election costs. For local issues, we could even go back to the town meeting concept. If you're interested enough to show up, you can vote.

Idna said...

I totally agree with Anonymous and Sue. Numbers don't mean much if the electorate is uninformed.

The whole "get out the vote" effort by the likes of a corrupt ACORN & making voting seem "cool" by actors & MTV was nothing more than a way to get young voters fired up to benefit the Democrats.

Probelm was, these young voters were sadly uninformed. There were countless news reports of people on the street being interviewed about who they supported for President. The interviewer would ask whether they agreed with Obama's stand on a number of issues. The interviewer would state what the issue was and the person would whole-heartedly agree .... until he/she was told that that was actually McCain's position on the issue.

There were so many people that voted for the "cool celebrity" who had no clue what the issues were. That sort of thing should not be encouraged.

Obama had an unbelievable campaign to get out the vote. Lots of money to buy votes. Issues were secondary to the cult of personality and speeches that drove listeners into a frenzy high, driving some to tears and even to the point of fainting.

This way of getting votes to me does not signify what true citizenship means.

Anonymous said...

This post didn't say that anyone and everyone should vote, whether they're informed or not. It suggests that people should care about issues, get informed, then vote. Helping others to help themselves by encouraging them to participate in the electoral system is a worthy cause.

Idna's claim that college students were enthusiastic about Democrats without knowing what they stood for makes me wonder just how many college students they asked to get the answers they wanted--just as I wonder how many Acorn staff the extremist right-wing spies visited before they finally found someone who flapped her mouth without thinking. Every large organization is bound to have some of those.

As for people voting who don't know what they're talking about, don't get me started on some of the Republican ignoramouses in Congress!

Sue said...

Yes, Idna, an informed electorate is important. But let's not get bogged down with the situation surrounding one very recent election. Looking at the larger picture shows the same problem of uninformed voters in many elections -- and on both sides. Nor is the problem limited to candidates; there are probably more misinformed and uninformed voters on initiatives and referendums than candidates, and more for minor electoral positions than for major ones.

The question is: how do we assure an informed electorate? The founding fathers believed that only those with a vested interest (landowning men) should be allowed to vote. The nation decided many years ago that the right should be extended to all citizens. There is no stepping back from that.

However, maybe advertising could be controlled. Instead of allowing the dirty "anti" campaigns, maybe both sides should have to contribute to independently-produced "infomercials" that would attempt to present all sides of an issue, or of the candidates' stands, in a clear, simple to understand format that would help voters know what's going on. You'd still have the "charisma" factor when it comes to candidates, but I, for one, would certainly appreciate a respite from all the dirty campaigning we are exposed to.

Any other constructive ideas, anyone?

Six said...

To address Sue's points, particularly the invitation for ideas...

I believe the fundamental problem with voter ignorance is that so much of politics is very removed from our perception of our daily lives. Call it 'out of sight, out of mind'. My preference would be to take away much of the power that the corrupted, corporate/union-bought-and-paid-for DC politicians have amassed. From all of the reports I have ever read, people tend to only vote in local elections when they are informed on the candidates/issues - or they typically abstain from voting on it or do not show up to vote at all. A lower voter turnout is not necessarily a bad thing when the voters who do turn out are keenly and genuinely passionatly aware of the issues and the impacts they have in thier community. I would prefer the Federal government only focus on the most basic, operational parts of our country as a coalition of 'United States' -leave more to the state and local government - and even more for its population to work out on it's own.