Post-election Panel Says Democracy Is Well, but Wavering

Posted: November 19, 2004 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

By Tara Laskowski

The polls have closed, the results are in, and a few weeks after the presidential election, experts are now looking to the future. A panel discussion by George Mason professors on Wednesday focused on what the recent presidential election showed about the function of democracy in our country and how education plays a role in the democratic process. Public and International Affairs Chair Robert Dudley moderated the discussion, which was coordinated by George Mason’s Democracy Project and Department of Public and International Affairs.

Toni-Michelle Travis, associate professor of public and international affairs, began by saying she believes democracy in our country is alive on some levels, as evidenced by high voter turnout, but the election highlighted the uncertainties of people’s faith in the system—both the voting methods and the Electoral College.

Hugh Heclo, Robinson Professor of Public Affairs, had a slightly more positive response to the state of democracy in the country. “It was good enough,” he said. He mentioned the pleasant surprises of the election, such as the Democratic Party raising more than $56 million and the Republican Party registering more voters through grassroots campaigning. On the whole, he said, these things were proof that democracy was working.

Education was also a key issue for the panel. For Hugh Sockett, professor of public and international affairs, the greatest failure of the past few elections was purposeful misinformation directed to the public. He said that although people take for granted mudslinging and gross generalizations by shrugging them off with, “That’s just politics,” he was not happy with the way the process manipulated voters.

“Few politicians seek to educate. Their primary task is to throw out soundbites that appeal to the public’s passion rather than reason,” he said. Sockett added that the universities take democratic responsibility too lightly. “We tell people the vague, ‘Get out and vote!’ but that won’t cut it. As educators, we need to stress the urgency of this responsibility and teach people the real issues so they can make educated choices.”

Roger Wilkins, Robinson Professor of History and American Culture, said that he feels the role of the media in education is also essential to a democracy. As a former journalist, Wilkins expressed his concern that many newspapers in smaller cities of the United States have diluted the amount of serious political information available. “If the majority of Americans are not getting this news, then that is a serious problem for democracy.”

Summing up what he saw about the American democratic process in this election, Heclo said, “This campaign was heartfelt. There were high emotions and passions, and people were at times angry and upset. But the morning after the election, there weren’t any tanks on the streets. There was an announcement of the winner and a graceful concession speech, and then Americans went about their business. As an American, that is what makes me the most proud.”

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