Commentary

Can California still be considered a democracy?

By John McManus
Posted Oct. 6, 2006

California's official Voter Guide has grown to 191 pages for the Nov. 7 election. Casting an informed vote is becoming more burdensome at the same time as politicians are devaluing votes by drawing safe districts and allowing contributors a greater voice in Sacramento.

In a true democracy, power flows upward from the consent of the governed – all of the governed.

But consider a shocking new study by the Public Policy Institute of California.

Just 15% of the state's adults constitute the majority in a typical state election, says PPIC Research Director Mark Baldassare. They make political decisions for the rest of us. And that 15% is substantially older, whiter and richer than Californians as a whole.

That might not matter if their opinions mirrored the majority's. But they don't. They are considerably more conservative than the majority.

The most likely voters like Arnold better, and government solutions and taxes less, than the majority of Californians.

You think this is simply a matter of personal choice? Non-voters snooze so they deserve to lose?

John McManus

Eventually, we all lose when democracy becomes unrepresentative. The vast resources of government and the force of law side with the politically adept, dividing society into haves and have-nots. That fuels lawlessness and violence.

Democracy's weakest link has always been the limited willingness of average people to assume the responsibilities of citizenship – becoming informed enough to vote for their own interests.

But rather than brace that link, our political leaders chop at it. They create voting districts to protect incumbents from the people's will. They elevate the campaign contributors’ interests above the public's. They wink at cheap labor crossing the border while denying these immigrants a say at the polls.

A single vote, among millions, is little enough reward for doing the daily work of becoming informed. Yet it's been devalued.

So what has this to do with journalism?

The kind of reporting that empowers citizenship -- news that alerts us to how power is being exercised in our name by politicians and under our laws and policies by corporations -- is an endangered species in today's market-driven newsroom.

That's not just the fault of news execs, who are failing their own professional standards. By stacking the electoral system against participation, politicians discourage demand for serious news.

The result is a dangerous spiral of apathy. The public doesn't demand news of political significance because there's little reward for casting an informed vote. So news media shift their focus to better-selling, more entertaining stories. And elections are decided by the 15% "majority."