U.S. Future Is in Your Hands
Ithaca College is mounting a substantial voter education and registration drive in advance of the November elections. Participatory citizenship was the subject of President Williams's Convocation address, excerpts from which appear below.
A stop on the summer Eastern
European bike tour
A college education is a privilege, not a right. I believe that the privilege of attending college comes with certain responsibilities -- to yourself and to society.
For most of you this national election year is your first opportunity to vote for members of Congress and for president. Some among you may not yet be of voting age; others are citizens and residents of other countries. All the same, I encourage you to bring your perspectives to the dialogue that will take place about democracy and about politics.
Webster's dictionary describes democracy as "government by the people." This simple definition doesn't mention Washington, D.C., Congress, the White House, the Supreme Court, the armed services, or any other governmental institution. It acknowledges that you and I are the government. We decide what we want our nation to be.
This definition suggests that we are active participants in the democratic process. Sadly, our collective actions do not live up to this definition. Many students abdicate their right to vote. In the last presidential election 18- to 24-year-olds were half as likely to vote as other adults. The percentage of young people who vote has been falling since 1972. Do you want other people deciding what your future will look like?
A large number of you belong to another potentially influential block of voters -- the 40-million-plus single women of voting age in this country. More than half did not cast ballots in the 2000 presidential elections. In a survey just after those elections, pollster Anna Greenberg found that 65 percent of single women said they viewed the country as "seriously off on the wrong track," yet many of these very women left it to others to get the country back on track.
Many people think their votes don't matter. That is simply not true. As columnist George Will points out, the result of the last presidential election would have been reversed by the switch of a mere 269 votes in Florida and fewer than 22,000 votes in New Hampshire, Nevada, or West Virginia. Democratic strategist James Carville believes that in 2004 less than a 3 percent margin in the vote is likely to decide who becomes president.
According to Business Week, the United States ranks 139th in voter participation among 172 countries with democratic elections. Barely half of the 186 million Americans who are eligible to vote for our nation's leader do so. That is a sad fact.
In his book The Soul of a Citizen Paul Rogat Loeb, a guest lecturer on campus last fall, says that Americans have all but forgotten that public participation is the very soul of democratic citizenship. He is on a mission to get people involved again in their communities, fighting for the social issues they care about. He encourages us to fight cynicism and to believe that we have the power to define and redefine our nation's priorities, right wrongs, and change things for the better.
To do so, we must accept that democracy is a work in progress that will remain strong only if it is constantly evolving to address the changing desires and needs of the people it represents. As author Terry Tempest Williams puts it, "Democracy invites us to take risks. It asks that we vacate the comfortable seat of certitude, remain pliable, and act on behalf of the common good." Her words are true for a well-established democracy like ours, as well as for countries where democracy is a new concept.
This summer I cycled 800 miles through the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, and Romania. The people of those nations are working to establish their priorities and to define their own brand of democracy. The United States must work just as hard to ensure that its more-established democracy is healthy.
According to the Pew Research Center, 45 percent of Americans said the outcome of the 2000 presidential election was important; this year 63 percent said the 2004 election outcome is important. Clearly, people care about what happens; they now need to become engaged in the democratic process. I hope that you will be among the engaged, that you will learn about important national issues, and that you will evaluate the presidential candidates and determine which one best represents your values, priorities, and hopes for this country. Accept your responsibility to vote on November 2 -- and take your place among those who will shape the future of this nation.