The greatest problem facing the nation today is not drugs, crime, AIDS or poverty. The most dire threat to our society consists in the fact that so many people are content to let others make decisions for them. From the activistic heights of the '60s, we have reached the apathetic lows of the '90s.
A lack of awareness is part of the problem. Most Americans have little conception of political and economic issues, both national and international. Witness how easily a jury was found for the trial of Oliver North, the symbol of the Reagan administration's covert corruptions. That trial involved some of the most shocking allegations of loose-cannon government ever seen in this country. Yet many people were unaware of the case, unconcerned by the process or ignorant of the implications of the trial's results.
Most Americans never hear about the issues that will make a difference in their lives. Instead, events that receive sensationalist treatment worthy of the muckrakers of the Gilded Age--such as the O.J. Simpson trial and Susan Smith's alleged murders of her children--hog the headlines. These are mere curiosities that have no effect on average citizens.
The mechanisms necessary to create an informed populace do exist. In this information-ridden age, almost everyone has access to a television, radio or computer. Television and radio, now flooded with absurd talk (read: freak) shows and gritty (read: fluffy) investigative reporting programs, should be required to carry the information that really does matter.
That information could come as a five-minute capsule about Congress on every evening newscast. Of course the government wouldn't script the reports, but national network would be required to cover daily sessions. Radio newscasts could carry similar capsules.
Many unfortunately influential people, such as the ultra-right-wing demagogues who have the gall to accuse the federal government of plotting the tragedy in Oklahoma City, would call such a plan paternalistic or plain propaganda. Daily political news coverage can't consitute propaganda if the government only sets the floor for the time period of coverage.
The addition of universal currents events requirements in schools could teach the value of informedness at a young age. These objectives are paternalistic, but a 'right to ignorance' shouldn't exist in a democracy--especially when so few citizens take action on their own.
Fewer and fewer citizens have been taking action at the most basic level: the voting booth. Not only should more people vote, but voters should be better informed. A democracy shouldn't have a 'right not to vote' either. This nation lacks a feature of many European democracies--compulsive voting. In fact, we move in the opposite direction with obligatory registration. We need to do everything we can to make voting easier, and mandatory.
Anti-democratic ranters would run afoul of such a rule, on account of a belief that "the masses are asses." Most of the people who don't vote shouldn't vote, they argue. Perhaps forced awareness as described above would allay some of these fears, but the fundamental premise for removing decisions from the majority of the citizenry is still flawed.
The failure to vote signifies an abdication of responsibility. No one who fails to vote has the right to argue with the decisions of elected officials; non-voters can only dispute the system that they have boycotted.
Mandatory voting would put the responsibility for the country's fate squarely in the lap of every adult citizen. This allotment of responsibility gives the only credible incentive for awareness and activism. Anti-paternalists could be placated by giving particularly motivated citizens the opportunity to sign up as 'conscientiously objecting non-voters.'
This passive nation can be transformed by a brave government. A country founded on individualism and democracy should not seep into the depths of indifference.
Daniel Altman's column appears on alternate Mondays.