Thursday, May 08, 2008



There's a Jewish communicy center near my house and I pay for an annual membership, even though I'm not Jewish. One of the benefits of membership is a weekly lecture or seminar on history given by a retired history teacher. I have known this teacher for many years and regard him as a good friend.

Last week the topic of his lecture was ancient Greece. One aspect of Greek society that he dwelt on was democracy, a word that meant participation by the people or citizens of a city (the demos) in the government of the city. I had known from something I read years ago that the Greeks did not elect their officials. They chose them by lot. Hence, to the Greeks, democracy had no reference to the way in which officials are chosen.

We Americans like to believe that we have a democratic society. However, to us the term democracy refers to the method of electing our representatives, governors, and other public officials. Some of us who are more careful in the use of language insist that we have a republic, or a "representative form of government." In a republic, officials are elected and represent the voters who elect them in carrying out the debates and discussions regarding public policy.

It is an election year and I have been a phone volunteer for a candidate for the California Senate. At the beginning of a calling session I am given a list of names and phone numbers. I am to try to talk to each of the persons listed by telephone, tell them about the great things the candidate has done in the past, and persuade the listener to vote for the candidate in the election next month. My experience is that I am able to make fifty calls during a session. Forty of the calls reach an answering machine. I do not leave messages. I simply make a notation on the list that the person is "not home" and go to the next name.

Of the ten persons who are home and answer, I get various responses. One response is, "I don't talk to anyone about political matters" and the person then hangs up. Other responses are that "I know this person and am going to vote for her," or "I don't know this person," or "I know that this person is too liberal (conservative) and I won't vote for her." If the responder is undecided, I try to tell him or her about what the candidate has done and what she will do if elected. Sometimes I am successful in persuading a responder to decide to vote for my candidate.

Most Americans don't like to engage in phone conversations with callers like me who try to persuade them to vote for a particular candidate. A few responders show a keen interest in certain issues, sometimes issues that I haven't mentioned in the conversation. One responder wondered about my candidate's position on guns. Another was interested in universal health care. Another asked if my candidate approved or disapproved the governor's proposed cuts in education spending. These responders are engaging in talking about policy. That's what the Greeks meant by the word "demokratia." Another example of demokratia is attending a meeting with a member of the State legislature or the federal congress and participating in a lively discussion of some issue of interest. The object of the discussion is to persuade the representative to vote a certain way when the issue comes up in the legislature or congress.

In my phoning I am disheartened by individuals who refuse to talk to me about political matters. They are, in my opinion, very un- or anti-democratic.

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