Democracy Soup

Making sense out of the world of politics

Egypt isn’t Chicago, but both suffer from atrophy in voting muscles

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Egypt has gone through 30 years of a dictatorship since the death of Anwar Sadat. As the country is discovering freedom, there is fear that the citizens won’t make the “right” decision. Some of this sentiment stems from the fact that going without democracy for so long atrophies the democracy muscles.

Chicago is having its first real mayoral race since 1989, and its first serious mayoral race since 1983. As the city is discovering freedom, there is fear that the citizens won’t make the “right” decision. Some of this sentiment stems from the fact that going without democracy for so long atrophies the democracy muscles.

Comparing Egypt to Chicago? A bit audacious, don’t you think?

Yes, it is. And this isn’t a literal comparison. Comparing Egypt to Chicago, line for line, would be insulting to the suffering Egyptians have faced. And journalists in Chicago aren’t being beaten and sexually assaulted.

But the atrophy of democracy muscles happened in East Germany after the fall of the Berlin Wall, is happening in Tunisia, Egypt, and whichever Middle East countries follow in those footsteps. They also happen in U.S. Congressional districts that are so badly drawn that one-party dominance reigns supreme.

One forgotten element of democracy is giving citizens a real opportunity to participate in the democratic process. In 2008, we saw millions of Americans feeling like they had an actual say in the primary process unlike any other year in the modern political era.

Indiana has its primary in May, and hadn’t had a serious race until the Democratic Party primary in 2008 since, well, no one could remember.

Chicago has had a mayoral race every four years since Richard M. Daley was elected in 1989 to finis the remaining two years of the term of the late Harold Washington. But during the entire time of Daley’s 21-year reign, there has been little if any debate, no chance to engage the mayor with the citizens he represents, no chance to say what was on their minds.

Now, each citizen in Chicago has an alderman, a person who can represent the views of the citizens in the City Council. However, Daley has successfully controlled most of them, and appointed a number of them to fill vacancies. In Chicago, getting a 44-6 vote is a big story since the margin isn’t as large as usual.

And though some aldermen occasionally lose a race, the replacement isn’t any more likely to take on the establishment. Soon, citizens become frustrated that they have no voice in city politics.

Citizens in Chicago and Indiana have more opportunities than those in Tunisia, Egypt, and elsewhere to express how they feel. The media allows more chances to speak up, even if you feel nothing will change as a result. This is a key difference between the two situations.

While the levels of atrophy aren’t the same, there is that uneasy feeling that you can’t fight city hall.

Regular readers will know that this columnist is not a fan of Rahm Emanuel. His arrogance was clear when he represented the 5th district in Congress; his ineffectiveness as Chief of Staff didn’t endear him; and now he wants to be Chicago’s next mayor. Well, not Chicago’s next mayor – more like the continuation of the old mayor in the sense of power and loftiness.

Hyperbole? Daley’s strength or weakness – depending on how you look at it was diffusing opportunites for his enemies to speak up. Emanuel is challenging Ed Burke (powerful Chicago alderman) and Emanuel hasn’t even been elected yet.

We won’t bore you with the particulars of the aldermanic race, but in the last 8-9 years, this columnist can’t remember having a real choice. Sure you can vote for the person who will score 25%-30%. Having a choice – a real choice – blows the minds of those now faced in that dilemma.

As you can imagine, having so little choice in elections produce pathetic voter turnout, further damaging democracy. Richard M. Daley was the most powerful city mayor in the United States – yes, much more than Bloomberg. But factor that the turnout for the last mayoral race in Chicago was about 33%, and Daley got about 71% of the vote.

So Daley won re-election with 23% of those registered to vote, and this doesn’t count those who were eligible but not registered. These aren’t Communist China numbers, but they shouldn’t be numbers in one of the world’s most powerful democracies.

When democracies are young, they make mistakes. Heck, the United States didn’t have a mechanism to elect a vice president; the person who came in second got to be vice president for awhile.

When democracies seem young, because those democracy muscles haven’t been used in awhile, they make mistakes.

The best solution isn’t political Ben-Gay; just work those muscles more often. Having non-partisan groups draw U.S. Congressional boundaries. Make it easier to get people onto the ballot. The cruel irony to the trouble that Rahm Emanuel had in getting on the ballot is that in Chicago and Illinois, the threshold – officially and unofficially – to stay on the ballot is much higher than a democracy should tolerate. Those with much less clout and money don’t have the chance to stay on the ballot.

News coverage should include all the candidates for a race, whenever possible. Ask most Chicagoans how many people are running for mayor, and they will tell you 4 (the correct answer is 6).

Chicago does have early voting, but voters need to feel like their vote means something. The United States isn’t Egypt – but right now, the enthusiasm in Egypt is much more alive than it is in the United States. Americans could learn a little about being enthusiastic about participating in the democratic process.


Written by democracysoup

February 18, 2011 at 7:58 am

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