Living in a democracy: We are very fortunate to live in the United States of America Print
Written by Mary C. Uhler   
Thursday, Feb. 24, 2011 -- 1:00 AM

editor's view by Mary C. Uhler

Throughout the world there seems to be a hunger for freedom and democracy. Almost every day there are people demonstrating for a better way of life in countries all around the world.

In the United States, we fought that battle hundreds of years ago and won our freedom. We established a democratic form of government with three branches of government: executive (the president), legislative (Congress with two houses), and judicial (our court system).

How democracy works

We elect our leaders with majority rule. However, we respect the rights of the minority when possible by a process of consultation through legislative hearings and public input. In the United States, we also value such things as freedom of political expression, freedom of speech, and freedom of the press. We encourage open discussion of issues.

After input from citizens, our elected representatives at the state and national levels pass laws by a majority vote. They are signed into law by the governor at the state level and the president at the federal level.

Laws are then enacted and they are expected to be followed by citizens of our country. If citizens feel a law is unjust, they may challenge the law through the court system all the way to the United States Supreme Court.

We know that laws have been changed over the years. Slavery, restrictions on voting, and segregation are just a few of the laws that have been overturned.  Some people are still attempting to overturn the Supreme Court’s ruling that legalized abortion.

In most cases, we abide by the decision of the majority when laws are passed. This is how our democracy works. It has its difficulties and challenges, but it has survived the test of time.

Things have changed

However, in recent years some things seem to have changed in our country. The political situation has become very polarized between the right and the left side of the political spectrum. People do not seem interested in listening to those whose viewpoints are different than their own.

Part of the problem, in my opinion, is the slanting of news coverage and the emergence of blogs, Web sites, and other new media. Anyone with a few ideas can start his or her own media site. These people do not need to have any credentials beyond their own point of view.

Another factor is the instantaneous release of information with little fact-checking. Someone can blog or just send out an e-mail or post an opinion on Facebook and it’s instantly spread around the country — even around the world. There may be wrong information circulated, but it gets out so quickly and corrections are rarely made.

Some suggestions

How can we deal with these changes in our democracy? Here are some suggestions to begin the discussion:

As a citizen of the United States, always start by considering what is best for the country as a whole — not just what’s best for yourself. If we all thought about the common good (as we learn about in Catholic social teaching), we might think about things differently.

Be educated about the issues. Read what both major political parties are saying. Study the candidates’ platforms. Don’t rely on hearsay or comments at the office watercooler to make up your mind on the issues. As Catholics, it also helps to study Church documents, statements from popes and bishops, and Catholic social teaching.

Be sure to vote. The number of voters has been very low in recent elections. For example, I went to vote on February 15 in a primary election in Madison and there were only two other people there at the time. We were choosing finalists for both Madison mayor and county executive races. People complain about what’s happening, but they often fail to go to the polls. It’s very sad!

Contact your elected officials and let them know how you stand on the issues. A thoughtful letter, e-mail, or phone call are usually appreciated. I do hope that our elected officials pay attention to our communication with them (I am distressed by form letter replies, however).

Sometimes we have to abide by majority rule. It may not always be what we want, but we have a chance to influence the direction our country takes in the next election.

Pray for our elected officials and our citizens for greater civility and more efforts to work together across party lines.

We are fortunate to live in a democracy. Let’s not take it for granted!