Democracy Dies In Darkness—Done In By Ignorance And Apathy

Politically ignorant citizens care a lot about what government does to hurt or help them, but apathy creeps in when we feel powerless.
06/04/2017 11:38 am ET Updated Jun 04, 2017

We depend on the free press to shed light on deeds done in darkness, but diligent reporting will not in itself preserve the health of our democracy. If a democratic system is to endure, its citizens must hold their elected representatives accountable every day, not just on Election Day.

Obviously, citizens are powerless to affect their government if they don’t know how it works. Yet studies routinely tell us that large numbers of voters do not know which elected officials are responsible for the issues they care about, and relatively few Americans understand the most basic process of how a bill becomes a law.

A recent headline proclaimed “In major victory for Republicans, House passes Obamacare repeal.” True, Republicans did publicly celebrate victory that day in the Rose Garden. “Obamacare is dead, it’s essentially dead,” President Trump said.

Every American must understand that Obamacare is certainly not dead, and Trumpcare is not yet the law of the land.

Unfortunately, I suspect that far too many of my fellow citizens read the headlines, watched the G.O.P. euphoria on television or online, and concluded that Obamacare was now dead. Even those who had no idea what was in the hastily written bill could easily assume that—whatever it was—Trumpcare was now the law of the land.

Now we’re relying on journalists to provide us with information about exactly what is in the healthcare bill. Sorting out the facts of the matter is crucial, since Republicans say one thing and Democrats say another, but the facts are not enough. If our democracy is to survive and thrive, every American must understand that Obamacare is certainly not dead, and Trumpcare is not yet the law of the land. Americans must know how a bill becomes a law and how we can affect the outcome during the process. The alternative is apathy, even despair.

In regard to the healthcare bill, if ordinary citizens are to engage in the democratic process, we need to know the basics: The bill now moves to the Senate, where it needs a simple majority to pass. If the Senate does not vote on the bill in its current form, it may die, or the Senate can write its own bill and vote on it. If the Senate bill passes, the House must vote to either pass that bill as is, or go to a bipartisan conference committee to work out the differences. If the conference committee can reach an agreement, the compromise bill must be passed in both the House and Senate and signed by President Trump in order to become law. We can contact our Senators via the Congressional switchboard at 202-224-3121.

Why care about politics when it’s a depressing waste of time? We may be ignorant, but we’re not stupid.

Why not add a short article sidebar with that very basic information whenever you report on a significant bill passed by the House? What about a whole range of bite-size civics lessons connected to articles? Human beings learn best in context, with repetition, and when we have a vested interest in the topic. USA Today and other media can strengthen our democracy by baking some civics education into daily reporting.

Politically ignorant citizens care a lot about what government does to hurt or help them, but apathy creeps in when we feel powerless. Why care about politics when it’s a depressing waste of time? We may be ignorant, but we’re not stupid.

The press can dramatically change our civic culture by showing us how to demand the best from our leaders. You empower us when you publish guest opinion pieces and letters to the editor. You give us hope when you cover constituents who express their concerns, because then powerful politicians can’t afford to ignore their constituents. You strengthen us when you tell the success stories of ordinary people who work together to hold their elected representatives accountable. You motivate us when you report on a first-time candidate who runs for office and succeeds against all odds.

Civic-minded journalism has the potential to give us hope so we can cure our democracy, which is currently in critical condition.

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