what does it mean to be a democracy?

Monday 10 May 2010

What does it mean to you to live in a democracy?  I’m guessing most (or all) who will end up reading this live in a democracy; the majority of you probably in the U.S.  But if you look around the world, not every democracy looks the same.  In fact, many democracies look pretty different than the U.S.

This post is a response to two things I experienced lately.  First, I went to see a new (still in film festivals) documentary about and called Gerrymandering.  While the movie was only OK in my mind, it made me think more deeply about the process of gerrymandering, or simply the process of drawing district, where a certain person represents a certain area, and where many people in that area may not feel repented at all.

Second, just before the results of the latest election in Britain were known, I read an article with this funny sentence: “But polls suggested there was a good chance no party would win an absolute majority needed to govern effectively.”  My first thought/response was “an absolute majority sure doesn’t help the Democrats in the U.S…”  But also the fact that there are more than two parties with multiple members in parliament is quite something for a U.S.  voter to consider.  ( The results did end up showing that no one party got an absolute majority, which will thus mean a “coalition” must be formed.)

I guess my main concern and thought is that we need some reform in the U.S. system.  I may be socialist, but I still believe representative democracy is the best way for a country to be run.  Many large elections often turn out less than half of registered voters (and certainly less than half of eligible voters — and horribly small numbers for primaries and “off” elections), so people obviously feel their voice isn’t heard.  Let me share some thoughts that would improve the system immensely.

First, I think we need to install preferential voting.  In this system, people rank their choices to allow for greater flexibility when voting.  This allows for people to avoid feeling like their vote is “wasted” when they prefer someone who is not necessarily in the top two, allowing for greater variety of candidates and more likelihood that people can vote for who they truly believe in and still know their vote will matter in the end.

Here is a simple example of how this works: Let’s say in an election, the candidates are Dana, Peg, and Adam.  Voters rank them by preference 1 -3.  When only the #1 choices are looked at, Dana has 35, Peg has 30, and Adam has 25.  No one has a majority, but we know Adam is liked least, so we take those voters who voted for him and see who their second choice is.  Of those who voted for Adam, 18 put Peg as a second choice and 7 put Dana, so now we see Peg has 48 and Dana has 42. Peg wins.  This scenario might exist if Peg is a well-liked candidate but from a minor party who voters might otherwise be scared to vote for because “she can’t win” as a third-party candidate.  However, this option allows her supporters to put her as a first choice and not be afraid their vote is “wasted” because they know their vote would go to their second choice if she can’t win.

This could be particularly useful in primaries, where you might have two people (say B. Obama and H. Clinton) considered “front runners” but multiple other candidates who people support.  Even if I prefer D. Kucinich, I might still vote for B. Obama out of fear that H. Clinton (who I very much don’t like) would win if I didn’t.  Or similarly, what if a B. Obama and J. McCain face off, but I really like this third guy R. Paul, who many don’t give a chance.  Do I “waste” my vote and vote for the guy I truly believe in or vote for the two “top dogs” who people say actually have a chance of winning?  With preferential voting, you don’t have to choose!  This allows more people to get in the action without them being termed “spoilers” for taking away votes that might to to others, because if their candidate does not get enough support, they can then support another candidate (those familiar with caucusing will understand much better than others how this might work).

The second big change I think needs to happen is proportional representation.  This system attempts to have the representatives in government more closely mirror the proportions found in the population.  Let’s say the great state of Ohio has these proportions of ideologies across the whole state:
5% Far Left
15% Left
30% Middle/Left
25% Middle/Right
15% Right
10% Far Right

However, because how districts are arranged, winner take all elections, and the general two-party system, the make-up of representatives to congress looks like this:
0% Far Left
10% Left
40% Middle/Left
10% Middle/Right
35% Right
5% Far Right

In this (fictitious) example, you notice that the “Left” representation is skewed to the middle, and the “Right” representation is skewed to the Right.  Those in the Far Left, who make up 1 in 10 voters, feel no one is speaking for them, and many in the Middle/Right feel under-represented and unheard.

Instead of looking at small units and only having one representative, if you look at a larger area and have the representation be proportional to the numbers found in the region as a whole, more (or all) people feel like they have a voice and that their vote and voice matter to the decision making process.

Let’s use the numbers above and give Ohio 20 reps in the House after the next census — as it stands, if you live in Fulton county Ohio, you have one certain representative who may or may not be sympathetic to your views, and you may think “they don’t represent ME!”  However, if the 20 reps of Ohio instead represented the spectrum of ideologies, everyone should know that there is someone (or many people, if your ideology is a common one) who represents my feelings on the decisions that have to be made.  No one (or far, far fewer) should feel like their vote made no different.

As gerrymandering and district drawing go, many districts are “foregone conclusions,” where people expect the Democrat or Republican to win because of the sheer numbers of “those voters” in that area, and thus feel un-compelled to vote (if the election is even contested in the first place).  Ohio’s 5th Congressional District (located in rural NW Ohio) has sent a Republican to Washington since 1939 (not to mention the fact that it was only 3 different people from 1939 to 2007).  If I’m a non-Republican living there, why should I vote?  Who represents me in Congress?  Proportional representation gives a voice and representation to those who feel voiceless under the current system.

(The electoral college is also flawed, but we won’t get into that much here.  Basically, large elections should be based on the popular vote numbers using preferential voting.)

Preferential voting and proportional representation will help rid the U.S. of the horrible monopoly operating as the  two-party system.  These systems would allow more and varied voices to be heard, not just on TV and the Internet, but in the legislative process as well.  With more parties in the mix, it will force an end to the “us vs. them” mentality of Democrats vs. Republicans, Conservatives vs. Liberals, and on and on.  Coalitions will emerge to get things done, and groups will cease to be the monolithical, unmovable blocks who refuse to talk about compromise because no one group alone has enough power to sway things without the help of others.

Thoughts?  Comments?  Agree/Disagree?  Please comment and pass on to others.

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unemployment and bad places to live

Friday 19 February 2010

Continuing the website/article suggestions, a few quick ones about the economy.

First, a great, short multimedia presentation simply showing a county by county visual picture of unemployment numbers growing since the start of 2007.  It’s pretty eerie how the country gets darker and darker (representing higher unemployment) as the recession begins and continues.  And we’re supposed to have at least two more years of these high unemployment numbers?  Good luck!  The Decline: The Geography of a Recession

Second, Forbes magazine does a lot of “lists,” and I came across this one detailing America’s 20 Most Miserable Cities.  Of note, 5 of the top 20 are Northern Ohio cities (Cleveland, Canton, Akron, Toledo, and Youngstown), with another 5 coming along the same line in northern Illinois and Indiana (Chicago, Rockford, and Gary) and southern Michigan (Detroit and Flint).  Apparently the area between Iowa’s Quad Cities and Pittsburgh, PA is not a good place to live (even if I’ve enjoyed the approximately 23 of my 28 years living there)!


In The Heights (I’m Home)

Thursday 3 December 2009

This past Monday evening, I had the pleasure to attend the Broadway musical In The Heights (winner of the 2008 Tony for Best Musical) in New York City.  It has some great music, but the story itself got me thinking again about home, a topic I discussed in the fall of 2007 on another blog post: home IS where the heart is.  In that post, I discussed how as I travel around, I take people with me in my heart, always bringing “home” along for the ride.

In The Heights got me thinking a bit more about how much that fact is or isn’t true.  I may get the love from many places, but what location feels like home?  In In The Heights, the main character’s parents emigrated from the Dominican Republic, which he feels to be his homeland and wishes to return, but really he, along with many of the characters, are in a struggle to reconcile the lands they or their predecessors came from with their attachment and feeling of “home” in the Washington Heights community of NYC they have become a part of.

Jumping around from place to place the last 2 1/2 years, never staying for more than about six months in one place (often less), it’s been a long time since I’ve felt any location or community as a true “home,” at least in the ways In The Heights creates such a feeling.  Thus, I am taken back to the place I grew up, NW Ohio, and the place I went to school and spent two years following, Chicago(land).  When you’re in a place that long, you develop a lot of connections not only to people but to the location and livelihood involved.  Thus, attending this musical got me thinking deeply about returning to my “homeland,” one of those two places.

However, it also reaffirmed another commitment within myself in this job search, and that is making a commitment to whatever community it is I find myself in next.  It’s been too long since I’ve really been able to commit to a location, but that’s one thing I’m thirsting for as I seek my next job.  At one interview, I was asked where I saw myself in 3 years, and I said I saw myself doing whatever it was I ended up doing next (in that case, that specific job). I see my next step as a longer term commitment than I’ve made for a quite a while.  I want to connect with a place again, something I’ve only tangentially done the past 2 or 3 years.

So while I have two settings that, deep down, feel like “home” to me (along now with multiple houses/residences), I think there is room for more.  While I think there would be some comfort to returning to Ohio or Chicago, I also believe that embarking on a new adventure in a new city/location has the ability to create a new “home” for me, wherever that might be.

I’ll just be waiting expectantly (the topic of my next blog) to find out exactly where that might be!


Palin McCain sign brings me joy

Saturday 1 November 2008

So while I’m sure this kind of switch-a-roo may have already happened on photoshop in various forms, when I was driving down a rural Ohio road Friday afternoon, I saw this sign in a yard and just busted out laughing and decided I must turn around and snap a picture.

At first I thought that the campaign had actually created this sign, which seemed ludicrous, but then I realized that if one looks closely, you can see this supporter has carefully removed each name from its previous location and reversed the order, putting Mr. MCain as the under-card.

I’ll let you be the judge of interpreting what exactly this means, both for the person whose yard this can be found in, and for this election as a whole.  Feel free to comment and link this page as desired.


on vocation and discernment

Saturday 26 April 2008

A little while ago I was asked to write a short article for the newsletter of the campus ministry I attended at college. Here is what I wrote:

There are two big words I remember hearing during my time at ULC: vocation and discernment. Pastor Lloyd reminded us all that during our time as students at Northwestern, our vocation was just that – a student at Northwestern. And when it came time for me to leave that place, it was a process of discernment I used to figure out where I would venture next. How could I “decide” where God was calling me? I needn’t worry if I had made the right decision, for I was assured that God would use me wherever I was, whatever I was doing.

I think about both of those words – vocation and discernment – as I approach the fourth anniversary of my graduation from Northwestern. After graduating in 2004, I spent my first two years teaching HS Math in the northern Chicago suburbs. However, I also spent the summer of 2005 and 2006 in Ohio, working as a camp counselor, as I had a few years during college. From there I moved to Milwaukee as a part of Lutheran Volunteer Corps – a year-long program where I lived in intentional community, attempting to live simply and sustainably while exploring spirituality and working toward social justice. My placement was in an “alternative” HS, co-teaching Math to about 100 students who didn’t quite fit into to standard Milwaukee Public Schools. This past August, when my LVC year was over, I moved to Washington, DC to take a position recruiting for LVC, in which I traveled around the Midwest, sharing about LVC at colleges and universities. I was recently hired to remain on staff to continue working with recruitment initiatives until Easter. And after that? – well, who knows!

It’s interesting to think I’ve now spent nearly as much time out of college as I did in college. But am I any closer to finding “my vocation?” A common definition of vocation is that of Frederick Buechner: “The place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” And what happens when you throw the idea of discernment into the mix? Mustn’t we allow ourselves time to figure things out?

What I’ve come to believe is two-fold: First, our entire lives are a process of discernment. From the time we can talk, we’re asked something like, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” Thus begins one process of discernment. As we age, we are constantly discerning the kinds of relationships we want in our lives and if there might be a significant one among them. As I move around and do different “jobs,” I’m continuing to discern where to go and what to do next. And even if I come to a place I’m happy with, I’ll continue to discern whether to stay in that place and position or to maybe do something else.

Which flows into my second realization: Our vocation isn’t some job that’s perfect for us, but truly is, “The place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger met.” In all my different locations and positions, I feel I’ve been filling the hunger of the world around me while finding deep gladness throughout. There might not be one “job” I’m called to for life but instead many positions which fulfill my vocation.

So as I daily discern where God is calling me, I think of my vocation always in light of Micah 6:8b — “Do justice, loves kindness, and walk humbly with your God.”

eric (CAS ’04) was a peer minister for three years while at ULC. You can learn more about LVC at www.LutheranVolunteerCorps.org and read eric’s blog @ ericbjorlin.wordpress.com


why i voted for dennis

Tuesday 4 March 2008

I suppose this could have maybe been more effective before the polls closed in Ohio, where I voted by absentee ballot this year, but I thought it would be apt to post today, too. I sent my ballot through the mail about 3 weeks ago, and if what I think I know about absentee balloting in Ohio is true, my vote probably won’t show up on the Internet or television tonight, but it will still be counted. And in the end, my singular vote probably won’t directly change the number of delegates who go to one Democratic candidate over the other (I pulled a Democratic ballot this year), it is important nonetheless. And while it’s obviously a race between Barack and Hilary, when I filled in the oval with my #2 pencil, it was next to neither of their names. Am I foolish? You might think so. But here’s why I voted for Dennis Kuchinich.

There are probably lots of reasons one could argue I shouldn’t have voted for Dennis: he “isn’t electable” (based on some poll figures and such), he stopped actively campaigning over a month ago (he was fighting to hold on to his place in the House tonight), he could never “beat McCain.” The list could go on, I’m sure. And those might be reasons you wouldn’t or didn’t vote for Mr. Kuchinich (as the NY Times would call him), but for me, those aren’t good enough any more. I’m tired of voting for whoever the Democratic candidate ends up being in November because she or he is surely “better than a Republican” and we know it’s really only a two person race anyway, no matter how many names are on the ballot (and who those other candidates would “take votes from,” leading to such a situation that occurred in 2000).

But that’s my problem: we too easily “settle.” Am I not to select the candidate who I feel would be the best person for the job? And if I don’t, why would the candidate I end up voting for have any incentive the change their ways to what I wished they were like? I mean, they got my vote the way they were, right? It’s not that I dislike Clinton or Obama — in fact, I would rather have either of them than that man from Arizona; it’s just that I like Kucinich better (much better, I might say). I don’t consider it throwing my vote away at all — I need to let me voice be heard, that I’m tired of “business as usual,” of playing games with corporations and “special interests” and all that jazz — and that I want our president and government to do what is truly best for all the people of this country and this world, not what’s best for those who will later help them fund their re-election campaign.

I’m sure there are some of you I still haven’t convinced, who will still vote for “the best of the rest,” but if you think it’s at least a worthy thing to vote for someone who stopped putting money into his presidential campaign in January, I probably should tell you why I marked Kucinich instead of one of the others promising “change.”

For one thing, Kucinich is a peace candidate. His main slogan was “Strength Through Peace.” We’ve heard promises of pulling out of Iraq (with certain conditions and time lines) from other candidates, but it’s more than just how you deal with one situation; it’s about an ideology. It’s about dealing through diplomacy and refusing to support militarism, handling misunderstandings and conflicts with conversation and discussion instead of bombs and bullets. Kucinich doesn’t believe “the best defense is a good offense,” as some do, but knows that the best possible situation is to not have to worry about defending from anyone at all.

Another issue is health care. Most people think providing everyone with adequate health care is a basic human right — especially in “the richest nation on the planet” — but people disagree on how to get there. Kucinich’s plan doesn’t perpetuate the current “for-profit” corporate business model of insurance companies and HMOs which causes some companies to seek out ways to get out of paying claims. It isn’t a plan that seeks to insure everyone by requiring them to have insurance or subsidizing them so they can afford it, a plan which creates an even greater profit for those making money off of health care. Kucinich wants a plan (which was offered by Ms. Clinton back in the 90s, actually) that rids us of the bane that are insurance companies and creates a single payer system — and if you think it would reduce our care or just don’t think it can work, watch Sicko.

I could go on about issues like trade and corporations and such (read “marijuana“), but you can look at his website if you’d like to know if you agree with him about other things. But really the point remains: “Why shouldn’t I vote for the candidate who I agree with the most?” (Take the test — for me Kucinich was an 83, Gravel an 82, and everyone else 38 or less.)

Editor’s note: after a short conversation with my Mom and Dad, I’d like to note that one could probably make a similar type of argument for voting for someone like Ron Paul, who my Dad voted for (Mom is an Obama-girl).


missing the snow

Monday 11 February 2008

I miss the snow.  Lots.

This is my first winter out of the Midwest, and I totally miss it.  After 25 winters in the states of Minnesota, Ohio, Illinois, and Wisconsin, the District of Columbia and the East Coast just doesn’t cut it.  I miss the snow.  When I heard about the recent weather in Chicago and Milwaukee that brought upwards of a foot of snow, I got jealous.  I want to be able to make a snow ball and have a snow ball fight or spend an hour or two building a snowman.  I did get to experience a little snow on two occasions here in DC so far — once I threw a snowball at someone as they answered the doorbell I had just rang, and the other moment I turned my head to the sky and caught these giant flakes in my mouth!

I don’t really miss the cold.  In fact, it makes it much easier to bike to work every day when it’s 40 or so degrees out and the roads are immaculate.  But it’s hard to feel like it’s winter with no snow and late fall (for the Midwest, at least) temperatures.  Today I opened the door and knew it was cold, but that didn’t keep me from biking to work.  I arrived and found out it was about 22 out on my ride (last year I would sometimes ride to work when it was about zero).  I thought, “Finally, some winter temperatures.”  And then I look at a 10-day forecast to realize that the high is predicted to be above freezing every one of those ten days which doesn’t bode well for precipitation arriving as snow.

Maybe it’s one of those “nature vs. nurture” things.  I hear people out here talk about being so frozen when it gets below 32, but I’m used to it, so it doesn’t bother me too much.  I hear about people who won’t venture outside when it rains and the temperature is hovering around freezing because of the ice — and there probably will be ice, but it’s not necessarily anything to be fearful of.  Other Midwestern transplants like myself comment how the driver’s here in DC “go crazy” when there is even only a trace of snow.  And I remember a day last month when it was predicted to”flurry,” and they had already spread salt on the road as I biked to work.

This winter is teaching me a few things.  One of them is that I definitely miss snow and don’t know if I could live too many years out here where it is considerable lacking.  But another is something more important, I think, and it has to deal with perception.  Who has the better Winter weather?  After this experience, I’ve learned it’s all in the eye of the beholder.  And, of course, I’ve also learned that’s true about more than just the temperature and amount of snowfall.