Sunday, May 2, 2010

Political Participation and Shyness

I am not shy. A shock I'm sure. It is often hard for me as an avid political commentator, blogger, and political science major to realize that there are people, my fellow citizens, who choose not to pontificate their opinions and ideologies on others. I make a hobby out of it frankly. A bad habit perhaps, yet I understand that it is essential to democratic governance that everyone participate on one level or another. I don't have to be as loud or zealous as I am, yet it's a part of who I am. I am not inclined to hide it. For those that do, there are compelling psychological factors at play. Many people feel inclined not to participate thus take part in a process of self censorship. This censorship, like other forms, prohibit voices to be heard. In the article, "Nonparticipation as Self-Censorship: Publicly Observable Political Activity in a Polarized Opinion Climate" by Andrew Hays & Michael E. Hugo of Ohio State University with Dietram A. Scheufele from the University of Wisconsin published September 2006 in Political Behavior this phenomenon of self-censorship is examined. It is found in the article that social fears have an detrimental impact on the body politic. Self-censorship is too vast and must be discouraged. Civility and tolerance need to make a comeback.

In this polarized climate, many of my fellow Americans feel that public forms of political participation are susceptible to public scrutiny or social ostracism. Such activities, including a campaign sign in their yard, engaging in political discourse, and volunteering for a campaign, require some form of 'publicness' since they are observable by one's peers. Even a financial contribution to a campaign can be searched on the FEC website. Meaning that seemingly private political activities can be observed. Politics have become more divisive and the fear that political activity will be scrutinized by one's peers and neighbors has forced many people to censor themselves through nonparticipation.

I can understand the fear to express one's views having many uncomfortable conversations on politics myself. As a politically active student at St. Olaf campus, I know there have been numerous complaints of how I have handled such conversations (a fault I have attempted to correct) and that the progressive atmosphere of Northfield discourage many students from coming out as conservatives.

Now it must be considered that there are those who are just naturally predisposed to be shy and are not inclined to participate in politics publicly. Moreover, there are citizens who feel that they are not informed enough to participate effectively or are under the incorrect assumption that their opinion or input cannot change politics or policy. Regardless of the exact reason and predisposition, too much self-censorship or embarrassment in regards to one's political opinion leaves our civil society to zealous partisans or even extremists. Policy and elections will be controlled by those at the ends of the political spectrums. This leaves too many legitimate concerns and voices lost in the shuffle. This is the tragedy of too much silence in our democratic life. The incivility that leads to self-censorship helps no one. Speak up. Do not be ashamed of what you believe.

Right vs. Quantity of Expression. The Values and Groups Involved.

The American citizen is a fickle being. This is nothing new. However, in regards to the debate over campaign finance reform, it is can be disconcerting how fickle the American citizen can be towards democratic values. At the heart of the debate over campaign finance reform is the Constitutional right of expression and the equality of impact of such expression. The article "Value Conflict, Group Affect, and the Issue of Campaign Finance" by J. Tobin Grant from Southern Illinois University and Thomas J. Rudolph from University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign published by the Midwest Political Science Association in July 2003 examines the conflicted values and effect of interest groups on how the American citizen perceives or supports campaign finance reform.

The authors note that there are different ways to frame the campaign finance debate. For those who opposed campaign finance reform and any limit on political expenditure, any new reform or limit is an offense to our Constitutional right to expression. 'Money equals speech' has been the law of the land since Buckely v. Valeo. The case is truly a landmark and is quoted in the article, "A restriction on the amount of money a perosn or group can spend on political communication during a campaign necessarily reduces the quantity of expression... This is because virtually every means of communicating ideas in today's mass society required the expenditure of money..." (p.454) As an avid campaign volunteer and intern I might disagree with this statement. I have been able, without money, to persuade citizens to vote and express my views to the public. Of course where I can speak to a few hundred residents of Northfield or St. Olaf over the course of a few months, a television commercial that cost a campaign millions and is uploaded to YouTube can reach millions of citizens in seconds can shape a whole debate. My efforts are nil in comparison.

Yes, speech with money is more powerful and should be free, however it is louder than the voices of the people. It is louder than my voice. It can affect elections more than any single citizen or concern. It is all speech, yet there is no equality in quantity or impact. Reasonable limits ensure a fairer debate, that more voices can be heard. This argument is referred to by the authors as the Political Equality Frame. Every interest group and citizen should have equality to a certain quantity of expression. No one interest group, or now after Citizens United multinational corporations, should drown out the legitimate speech of others. Certainly as the 'pragmatic idealist' I believe that everyone should have a quantity to their political speech that is influential and that legislative restrictions on what can be spent might contribute to a fairer debate. However, such legislation cannot have the loopholes that exist in current law for '527's or soft money. We can do better.

A major obstacle in accomplishing a fairer debate during elections is that regardless of how the American citizen feels on campaign finance reform on principle- either that money is speech and should not be restricted or that there should be restrictions to allow for equality of expression and impact, the feelings of the citizenry depend heavily on how the interest groups they are a part of or 'like' are affected. The authors of the aforementioned article measure the effect of group centric thinking on the issue as well as framing campaign finance reform in terms of the right of expression or an issue of political equality. The framing was affected by the group centric thinking. One can speak in favor of campaign finance reform in reference to the gay rights advocacy group they are a part of or 'like' will be able under reform to compete with the corporations that finance opponents to gay rights. Or one can speak out against campaign finance reform if they feel their business will lose influence in the political sphere. A citizen can be for political equality- which insures that every voice is heard and disregard the rights of others to express their views. Or a citizen can be for the right of expression for everyone- that the right cannot be restricted even in regards to the funding of expression. Each stance is dependent on the group or concern involved.

This dichotomy does not bode well for our democratic values. Democratic theory and a healthy democracy depend on both the right of expression and equality of access. The right of expression for the gay rights advocate is only secure if his or her opponent is also allowed to express his or her false if not hateful opposing view. Yet the right of expression for either means little if one side is heard more than the other or one is silenced.

If money is a measure of access and quantity of expression then it should be regulated. Period. Reform can secure both the right and quantity of expression.