Democratic Idols

Tarsi Dunlop of the Middlebury Roosevelt Institution

Democracy is not an easy concept; even a definition is hard for many people to agree on. However, the United States is one of the oldest surviving democracies in the world. It is therefore noteworthy that for all our desires to spread democracy, within the US is where voter participation is sorely lacking. Why, then, were we finding so much interest in the 2008 election before party nominees were even selected?

It could be said that democratic participation, for a rational voter, makes little sense. This is very often the reason for low turnout and just one aspect of “Making Democracy Work” that the Roosevelt Institution seeks to address as one of its national challenges during this election year. It is a challenging problem and one not easily solved. Voter apathy is a powerful notion. However, almost six months before we knew who would be running in the general election, the race was already dominating headlines.

Why was this? Perhaps it was because in our own uniquely American way, we have managed to turn democratic elections into our very own American Idol contest. It is now all about the contestants and their personalities. Barack Obama is charismatic and has already become a larger-than-life emblem of liberal “change,” but he is young, and somewhat inexperienced. Hillary Clinton has huge name recognition— and yes, perhaps she does polarize— but then again, she has spent time in the White House. When one wonders who will win between these two, it almost feels like we might as well ask who is the better singer, rather than politician.

John McCain, meanwhile, is a war hero who has been playing the role of “comeback kid” in this race. But will he be able to unite Republicans across the country? Can they find enough to like about him to overcome their doubts about his political stance, will it come down to how much the voters can identify with the man himself? Thus the discussion goes on. However, in the end, news coverage likes conflict and sound bites – as the viewers demand – and thrives on uncertainty. Well, there is certainly plenty of that going around.

Ultimately, perhaps democratic participation is not really about policy as much as the people who claim they will represent us. One might even go as far as to ask them all to sing a few bars, make a brief heartfelt speech to the American public, and then we’ll send people out to vote. Electoral College aside, would more people head out to the polls? This feels like the popularity contests of junior high elections all over again.

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