National and campus apathy

This past Wednesday in Philadelphia, my friend was one of 16 protestors at Senator Santorum’s office opposing the war in Iraq. They refused to leave, were arrested, and were dragged out of the building after going limp at the hands of the police. Some of the group spent seven hours in jail before being brought to court and later released. Before the protest, they couldn’t talk about their plans because the University of Pennsylvania taps the phones of its student activists.

Relatively speaking, seven hours in jail isn’t even comparable to the consequences of protest in other parts of the world. But whether or not you agree with their position on Iraq, I find something very striking about their actions: while there has been discussion about preemptive war, how many Americans are voicing their opinions in the public sphere?

The government has made a lot of noise about promoting democracy, but collective silence on many issues and low voter turnout in recent decades don’t lend America much credibility. Because of dependence on citizen participation, apathy is democracy’s greatest vulnerability. Sitting in at your Senator’s office is certainly one form of participation, but voting and writing letters to your representatives are also ways to be heard.

Political demonstrations on campus are understandably absent, given our location. The Berkshires aren’t exactly a hotbed of controversy, and I have a hard time imagining hundreds of students marching down Spring Street arm-in-arm. So should we be concerned about a lack of student activism at Williams? Should we start planning rallies on Baxter Lawn? Probably not. Political dialogue among students and faculty, whether organized or impromptu, would be far more appropriate and worthwhile. The point of a protest is to show leaders in positions of power that you feel strongly about a particular issue. Unless a campus demonstration is targeting the school administration, no one in a position of power is going to be listening.

In some ways, America is merely part of a growing global trend toward decreased citizen involvement. Even nations that have traditionally placed an emphasis on citizen participation are beginning to feel the impact of indifference. Of Israel, France, Germany, Great Britain and Australia, only Israel has seen an increase in votes per voting age population during the past few decades.

According to the Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, the US rate has hovered at or below 50 percent while Israel’s rate has remained near 80 percent. Voting in Australia is compulsory; the election day is a national holiday and nonvoters are required to submit a written explanation and pay a fine. Even with these measures in place, voting rates have fallen from over 90 percent to 82 percent.

Australia has been able to strictly enforce the penalties for its voting laws. Would such a scheme work in the United States? Compulsory voting sounds like a good idea at first glance: the more citizens vote, the more accurately the government will reflect the needs of the nation.

However, “active voter” does not necessarily connote “educated voter.” There is always the concern that voters will merely choose the first name on the list. And in a free society, shouldn’t citizens have the freedom to abstain from elections?

Yet in the end, voting is merely the culmination of a long-term process of involvement. The conversion of opinion into reality takes commitment. President Bush should do more than ask Americans to spend money at the local mall and take an airplane to go on vacation, leaving important international questions to the upper echelons of government. America leads the international community in multiple spheres; let’s not also lead the world in complacency.