Viewpoint -- Democracy In America

Some thoughts about what democracy means as the presidential and congressional elections approach.

For a relatively young nation, the United States has a rather long and rich history of defining democracy. From colonial town meetings to the Iowa caucuses. From the Revolution to state referenda. In the words of J. Hector St. Jean de Crevecoeur, the Federalists and the Anti-Federalists, Alexis de Tocqueville, Walt Whitman and Hunter Thompson, Frederick Douglass and Vine Deloria Jr., Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan. On the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal and in the cover stories of Time and Newsweek. On the television networks' nightly newscasts and in the unreported exchanges between neighbors. On the 'Net. And in the horror of wars and in the peace that passes understanding. This fall -- specifically the upcoming voting for president and members of Congress -- promises to be another defining moment in the history of democracy in America. As I have traveled through much of the United States this year, I have been struck by how seriously people have been taking the 2004 presidential race in particular. The people I have been with and others whom I have observed have been remarkably interested in and conversant with the candidates and their positions on issues. And while at least some of the candidates have seemed to me to be long on rhetoric and short on reasons, just the reverse has been true among the people I've seen. They have thoughtfully expressed their reasons for and against -- and have conveyed a certain impatience with empty words. I've spent most of my professional life working in Washington, D.C. I am admittedly addicted to American politics. The most recent non-business book I've read was a respectable biography of R. Sargent Shriver, the first director of the Peace Corps, the first director of the Office of Economic Opportunity, U.S. ambassador to France, and, of course, John F. Kennedy's brother-in-law and husband of Eunice Kennedy Shriver. The looming Capitol building never fails to impress and inspire as I move east toward it along Pennsylvania Avenue. But more impressive to me this year are those people outside Washington, D.C., who in their comments and questions are taking the upcoming elections seriously. These are people who seem truly concerned about democracy in America. I hope that I have not been seeing and hearing an unrepresentative sample of the electorate. I want to believe that the comments and questions will continue right up until Nov. 2. I want to believe that people who are serious about the candidates and the issues will vote on Nov. 2. In 1960, the U.S. presidential election was decided by fewer than 8,000 votes in Illinois. In 2000, the presidential election was decided by fewer than 1,000 votes in Florida. Despite what the cynics say, despite the alleged and real imperfections of candidates, despite past disappointments and the prospect of them in the future, I remain convinced that every single vote does matter. Deliberately, I have not mentioned the names of any of this year's presidential or congressional candidates. Nor will I. Nor will I presume to tell you what the defining issues of the upcoming elections should be. They -- and the candidates for whom you will vote -- are decisions for you to make. But I will urge you to vote. You may not believe your vote comes close to having the impact of the people and the positions they took did in America's past. You would be wrong. America's democracy has been further democratized by the actions of individuals -- alone and together -- for more than 200 years. This year, this fall, in the presidential and congressional elections -- and in any number of state and local elections -- you have the opportunity, again, to define democracy in America. John S. McClenahen is a senior editor for IndustryWeek. He is based in Washington, D.C.

TAGS: Legislation
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