To talk about politics means to engage in what is basically a minefield of opinions. Debates can get as long as the day and night together, and even then not reach a conclusion that leaves everyone satisfied. But how much of the population is well-versed in the issues? How involved in politics are Americans? Are people from other countries more or less involved? And is political involvement from the masses something good or bad?
Coming from Bolivia, I’m used to hearing strong opinions about politics, especially how bad the current government is doing (not only this government, but in general). I’ve heard that in most countries in South America the same kind of comments are typical.
But it’s not only about political opinions. People are used to being very politically involved in many aspects of life. In Bolivia, for example, public colleges are totally free for citizens and therefore are well linked to the state government. So when something is not functioning the whole school (teachers and students) let the city know it with strikes or marches. The same thing happens with unions, or independent public offices – they find a way to be heard. In comparison, people in the States seem to be indifferent about politics.
But let’s start with some data. In 2008, about 62% of Americans that are able to vote did exercise their right. This year, about 20% of Americans under the age of 30 turned out to vote, according to the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement. That’s down from the last midterm election in 2006. Even more, as my college newspaper, the Daily Kansan says, the gap in voting enthusiasm between young and old voters has grown since 2006.
Here in Kansas, from talking to people I would estimate that an average of one out of every ten people I asked had voted in the midterm elections. And the ads here were mostly about how bad the other candidate is, instead of talking about their own ideas. I have also found that student senate or any student representation on campus is kind of limited compared to how it is in Bolivia.
In Bolivia, people are used to voting for every different type of election, and we typically get around 72 to 84 percent voter participation in major elections. There is some debate about how “democratic” the country really is – in an editorial from a local newspaper in my city, they talk about how the people need different kinds of freedom (not just voting) guaranteed. But that is a hole I wouldn’t like to dig in. That’s more an opinion than a fact.
In Bolivia, where I studied at a public college for one year before transferring to the U.S., I saw myself negatively affected by the school’s strikes, which cancelled classes. But I also felt the rush of my vote counting in my first election, which I participated just months after I turned eighteen. I felt proud of myself – self-accomplished for being part of something that big and important. And when I had to, I expressed myself on campus too.
But something I found interesting is the fact that voting day here in Kansas is just like any other week day, and if someone doesn’t vote, there is no penalty for that. In Bolivia, school and work are closed on voting day, and if you don’t vote you get a fine. So I guess we pretty much HAVE to vote.
In retrospect maybe I wasn’t informed enough to make a responsible decision in my just-acquired eighteen years (a mistake I didn’t repeat for the only other participation I had). Some people here told me that they don’t vote just because they don’t think they have enough information. That could (or could not) be a reason why American system is more stable than the Bolivian one.
Coincidentally, my philosophy class this week talked about the political view (based on Aristotle) that giving the masses the power to participate in political decisions leads to anarchy, for they make irresponsible choices – it’s better if “democracy” is confined to an elite decision-making class. It’s a convincing argument, even if you believe in democracy. We basically want the masses to have the power of decision and expression, we want them to be politically interested and active, but we don’t want all of them pulling in different ways and creating chaos. Quite a paradox we have now.
Anyway, does that mean that there is something wrong democracy in Bolivia? Or in America? Or maybe in other places in the world? Or that different kinds of democracy exist? Or even maybe that democracy shouldn’t exist?
I couldn’t even answer the questions I’m throwing up there. Anyway, as I stated in the beginning of the article, this could get longer than it has to, and I probably didn’t give a satisfactory conclusion. But well, that happens when you talk about politics. As the paradox says: vox populi, vox dei.