Meyers, Skaggs stress need for voter participation

by Charles Gardner | 11/13/03 6:00am

For two former members of Congress, declining participation in the American political process is a problem that threatens to undermine the very basis of republican government in the United States.

Jan Meyers and David Skaggs, who represented districts in Kansas and Colorado respectively while in Congress, emphasized the importance of voter participation in sustaining American democracy during a joint lecture last night.

At present, Skaggs said, America has "a minority government" in that well under half of those eligible choose to vote in a typical election year. In the College-age demographic, the numbers are even bleaker, with as few as 15 percent voting in a given year.

The "unhealthy trend" of declining participation, Skaggs said, which extends back for at least two generations, is not only injurious to the voters themselves, but to institutions of government, which can no longer take for granted the legitimacy of their exercise of power.

Furthermore, as fewer and fewer citizens vote, those who remain often represent the most extreme or uncompromising elements on both ends of the political spectrum. "Voices of moderation are reduced," said Skaggs, who currently serves as the Executive Director of the Center for Democracy & Citizenship Program. The polarization of politics that has resulted has made for a Congress that is less willing to compromise on controversial issues and which consequently passes less significant legislation than in the past, he said.

While the political process in Washington D.C. often "doesn't look pretty" to outsiders, Meyers said, there remains a level of "trust and common interest" among members of Congress that is not always apparent to observers. The two-party system, as well, has been "blessing" for the United States, Meyers said, and has helped maintain stability despite fractious political disputes.

Because of the narrow Republican majority that currently exists in Congress, Meyers said, feelings tend to be "less friendly" across the aisle than they were in her early years as a Congresswoman in the '80s, when the Democrats enjoyed a large majority.

"I happen to think it is very healthy." she said. "I don't like the idea of a strong majority and a weak majority -- I like a real fight."

For Skaggs, however, the current level of contention is not only a product of a slim political majority but also a result of a self-reinforcing trend of fewer people voting because of a perceived "shrillness" in government, while the same lack of participation leads to a Congress that is itself increasingly populated by those on political extremes.

Drawing a comparison between recycling and voting, Skaggs said that the two activities share a sense of collective significance that overshadows the relative unimportance of the individual act, whether it be pulling a lever or properly disposing of an aluminum can. However, while environmental causes have been embraced by the younger generation, Skaggs said, society has not been as successful in sustaining a "sense of civic faith" in the political process.

Skaggs emphasized the need to instill civic virtues starting at the earliest levels of elementary school to fight this trend, while Meyers stressed the importance of voting in primary elections, where she said voters have a responsibility that is just as important as that of voting in national elections.

The program, entitled "Democracy: Neither a Spectator Nor a Contact Sport," was sponsored by the Rockefeller Center as part of a year-long series on issues of civic responsibility.