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Election As a Civics Class

Nicholas Johnson

Des Moines Register

November 6, 2004

[See Nicholas Johnson's companion column, in the November 4 Gazette, bemoaning the Democrats' wandering in the wilderness in search of a campaign strategy, "Democrats' Recovery Begins by Looking in the Mirror," with its links to  the commentary of others on related themes.]

Once the semester is over, it's my students' turn. Their anonymous evaluations of the course, and me, help improve future classes.

A presidential campaign is kind of a semester-long civics class. So how did our "professors" do?

Putting aside their misrepresentations and the billions spent on negative attack ads, consider what they omitted.

Citizen empowerment. With rare exception, candidates only spoke the language of one-way promises, such as "Vote for me and I'll give you health care."

Promises have problems. Candidates may not mean them, be willing or able to work for them, or have the details in place.

Political contributors who want to block progressive legislation expect their usual 1,000-to-1 "return on investment." Contribute a million dollars, get a billion in government largess. How will the candidates stop this? They're not saying. Few endorse public financing of elections.

Candidates don't offer suggestions or programs that would empower us to fight for ourselves. It's all about them, what they can do for us.

Candidates know the foundation for democracy-building elsewhere. Political scientists call that foundation a "civic society." Economists call it "social capital." It's networking, community organizing and associations from Rotary to trade unions.

Although few social-studies teachers do it, their National Council for Social Studies advocates "civic education" -- out-of-school practical experience with democracy.

If we can do these things elsewhere, why not here?

Howard Dean had the mantra, and now book title, "You Have the Power." But it seemed to mean little more than "You have the power to get me nominated." Aside from Dean, and Ralph Nader's recipes for empowering citizens, the conventional candidate's chant was "give me the power."

Corporate advocacy. Nor did major donors' abuses get much attention: corporate crime, multibillion-dollar corporate welfare and bailouts, wasteful defense-weapons spending and environmental pillage and neglect.

There were many conventional issues, and population groups, given little attention. Loss of civil liberties, continuing vestiges of racism and the challenges confronting the nation's poor, working poor, working class and lower-middle class ultimately become problems for all of us.

There was talk about "the middle class." But what did you hear about the poorest 20 percent of American families, whose declining earnings are now less than $18,000? Or those who work a 40-hour week, or more, throughout the year and still live in poverty? There are twice as many workers killed in the workplace every year than died in the 9/11 attacks. Any concern for them?

Third parties. Much of America's landmark legislation has been supported only reluctantly and belatedly by our two major parties: antitrust, women's suffrage, workers' unions, Social Security, standards for wages, hours and child labor -- the list is long.

Progress comes from the prodding, and growing political power, of third parties.

The two major parties ignore or trivialize the proposals of today's third parties. They complain about "spoilers," but vigorously oppose electoral reforms, such as "instant runoff voting," that would eliminate the problem.

From the two-party-owned Commission on Presidential Debates to the irony of a party called "Democratic" filing lawsuits to deny voters the democratic choice of additional candidates, there was little discussion from the candidates or media of the role of third parties.

Finance and sacrifice. Is "borrow and spend" better than "tax and spend"? Few candidates spoke of necessary sacrifices, or the serious risks to our economy from the increasing multitrillion-dollar foreign control of U.S. debt and investments.

What are they hiding? Some candidates complain about the media's focus on elections as a horse race. They're right - there isn't much issues coverage. But when candidates are invited by Project Vote Smart to disclose their positions on issues via the Internet, it might surprise you to find out who refuses.

This is my "student evaluation." What's yours? A one-semester civics class every four years may not be enough to keep our democracy alive. Together we could "have the power" to save it, and ourselves. Whether we'll exercise that power remains the question.