Free Speech in the USA: Essential, But Not Sufficient, for Democracy

Posted on August 23, 2012


What’s the difference between the US and Russia?  As the Pussy Riot trial and two-year jail sentence shows us, freedom of speech is one big thing.  While Pussy Riot gets locked up for a protest song in a cathedral, we are free to voice our opinions, to gather, to protest.  Well, you know, that’s a big SO WHAT.

Don’t get me wrong: freedom of speech is essential to a real democracy, essential to popular power.  But it is not enough by itself.  If our freedom of expression is not followed up with action at the voting booth, it’s actually pretty useless.  Oh, we might feel better for all our bitching and kvetching, and certainly we have let our politicians know how we feel.  But one election cycle after another goes by, and do we “vote the bums out?”  No.  No, we do not.  We can have our freedom of expression all day long, and it won’t amount to a hill of beans because we do not know how to use our voting power.  And Congress knows it.

The American Presidency Project shows us some interesting voting statistics.  Of all Americans of voting age, some 70% – 79% have been registered for the past few Presidential elections (which means they are also registered for Congressional elections).  But in those same years, only about  49% – 57% of the registered voters actually cast ballots.  Turnout for midterm and primary elections is even lower.  And then there is the matter of competence on the issues.  American voters are notoriously ignorant of their own history, their own government, their own nation’s current affairs, and their own candidates for office.  Every election season, voters are bombarded with self-serving, scare-tactic political ads and – worse – wildly inaccurate chain e-mails claiming all kinds of nonsense.

People, we live in the Information Age!  Most of us, despite a declining education system, are still literate enough to surf the Internet and are increasingly semi-permanently connected to some kind of communications device.  It has never been easier to get information.  Remember when you had to physically go to a library and look through the periodicals or the microfilms?  Now you can sit at a computer in the privacy of your own home, with your cup of coffee and your cat on your lap, and read to your heart’s content.  Or, you could still go to the library, and use their computers to do the same thing, minus the coffee and the cat.

There are actually valid, credible, informative, responsible websites out there covering just about any political subject or candidate that you want to know about.  Most mainstream news organizations and scholarly sites have a search feature so you can pull up reams of information on your topic of interest.  But what do we do instead?  We watch 15-second sound bites on TV, we forward the hysterical, panicky emails, and we hang out on the websites run by people wearing tinfoil hats.  And we think we are informed.

Come on!  We can do better than this; we have to do better than this.  Voting is one of the very few tools the public has to exert its collective will.  Indeed, it is the most important tool.  If we are blundering around, misled, too lazy to go get actual facts for ourselves, and then on top of it all, fewer than half of us bother to vote anyway – well, you know what they say:  everyone has the government they deserve.