Democracy in Action! Well, sort of…

It is now officially autumn in an election year, and interested voters and observers around the world are following the candidates and are eager to hear what they have to say during the scheduled debates. Three debates are slotted for the presidential candidates, while one debate is set for the vice-presidential candidates. In past years, the primary focus seemed to be on the presidential debates, but with the media’s intense fascination with Republican Vice Presidential candidate, Sarah Palin, viewers around the world are expected to tune in on Thursday, October 2nd to watch her take on the Democratic party’s veteran senator, Joe Biden. In fact, for weeks now, the BBC website has had a permanent link to pre-VP debate information on their main page.

Considering this new found attention for the VP debate, I thought I would offer some observations on how this extravaganza is affecting the lives of those at its host university. After twice holding the presidential debates in recent year (1992 and 2000), Washington University in St. Louis was awarded what many originally saw as a consolation prize: the VP debate. Now that things have changed in regards to vice presidential “importance,” our campus is flooded with reporters, items are for sale everywhere (t-shirts, mugs, pens and even sweat pants…), and the grounds and maintenance crews are working overtime repainting walls and curbs, replacing dead flowers, and surrounding campus (and it’s a fairly big campus) with temporary aluminum fencing, pounding stakes in for secondary vinyl fences, and creating a protest pin (which members of the local Catholic Worker have already pledged to be in). The Athletic Complex, the actual venue for this shindig, is already closed for preparation that will include bomb squad sweeps, secret service details, and other anti-terrorism activities. This means that students will be unable to use the fitness facilities until October 6 even though the debate will be over on October 2. On the day of the debate itself, traffic, including the public bus I take to and from campus, will be banned.

Now, I would not mention these inconveniences if the benefit of this debate truly outweighed their annoyance. For all that the staff (so many maintenance workers have been in the grueling sun for days!), faculty and students have to do or put up with for this debate, getting to attend such an affair would make it all worthwhile. But of course, there is a catch. Of the thousands of tickets available for this debate, it is estimated (though not guaranteed) that only 200-300 will be given to the university. Over 7,000 of the 12,000 students have entered the ticket lottery for one of these coveted tickets, and odds are obviously slim.

Now, even if I were “lucky” enough to be selected in the lottery for a ticket, the debate will be nothing more than a pre-fabricated, staged dialogue between two candidates who have been given the questions ahead of time and have exchanged answers with the other political party. A moderator is asking questions, and in effect there will be no debate. It is just two politician-actors putting on a show. The candidates won’t even engage one another; they will perform for the audience and “smile pretty” for the camera. For more information on the death of the American Presidential Debate, see PBS’s website.

So what on earth does this have to do with being a young adult Catholic? Reports are estimating that the Millennial Generation will have the largest showing ever in history in representing young adult voters who have traditionally been the least likely to show up at the polls. As Catholics, we are called to live out the Gospel of Jesus in all we do and work for a better world as we glimpse the Reign of God. One primary way of having a voice in the world today is by voting. So if you haven’t yet registered to vote, please do so, and make democracy really happen…not just a lot of show like this debate is bound to be!

Becky Schwantes, a Minnesota native, is currently a Master of Social Work candidate at Washington University in St. Louis. She earned her M.A. in Theology from the University of Notre Dame in 2008 and has worked as a parish faith formation minister, social worker and in college campus ministry. Becky also holds a B.A. in Theology and Social Work with a minor is Social Justice and Peace Studies from the University of Portland, Oregon. Her primary areas of interest are Christian Social Ethics, Eco-Feminist Theology, Mental Health and issues of Aging. In her free time, she enjoys traveling the world, walking labyrinths, singing, and laughing with friends. Her favorite saints are Francis de Sales and Jane de Chantal.

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3 thoughts on “Democracy in Action! Well, sort of…

  1. Update from Debate Day:

    Campus is an absolute media carnival. Nearly 2,500 media personnel applied for campus passes, which is THREE times as many as had been requested for the 2004 PRESIDENTIAL Debate at the same venue.

    Only students, media, and debate ticket holders are allowed onto campus. Several classes, including my class that met at 9AM, was moved to the North Campus (located about a mile north of the main campus), and all classes after 3PM will be cancelled.

    MSNBC and CNN both have tents set up for “live coverage from St. Louis.” There is a space for “viewers” to get on camera behind the MSNBC anchors, and students have rallied to make signs to support their candidates. Overwhelmingly, Washington University Students have shown up in droves to support Obama/Biden. Of interesting note, few if any McCain/Palin supporters are on hand, yet there are middle-aged, non-student supporters being paid (I asked one) to hold gigantic, industrial made signs. These expensively dressed McCain/Palin “supporters” wearing business suits are working “shifts” to keep the signs present on television until the debate begins.

    On a personal note, I did get to talk with comedian correspondent, John Oliver, from The Daily Show who is also covering the VP debate from campus.

    The “Protest Pen” has been moved blocks away from the Athletic Complex, which will house the debate, so neither candidate nor the media will even see or hear from these protesters thought it “is in view of the Athletic Complex.” This is, in my opinion, the greatest travesty of this spectacle. These protestors’ right to assemble has been kept in tact in the most demeaning of ways, and they are not able to use their right of fee speech to tell the candidates and public their views of events.

    Again, I encourage everyone to use their right to vote. That act may be the only form of democracy seen during this campaign season if the vice presidential debate is any reflection of how elections currently work in the U.S.

  2. Oh my goodness, they were getting paid to be there?? I’ve never heard of such a thing. Why should I be surprised? What a zoo, I’m glad you made it out alive. And you’re right, that’s a huge travesty that the protestors were moved off site, I’m surprised they didnt resist.

  3. Becky,

    great blog, but just an FYI, we did not go into the protest pen. We have refused to go every year since 2000. Each year it becomes increasingly difficult due to hold an event in other places. This year we were initially refused the space in Northmoor Park, (across the street from the Pen), however with the help of ACLU lawyers and a meeting with the U. City Police department we were initially granted “permission” to use a public space. CTSA, (Center for Theology and Social Analysis), recently began a project that will document in video the erosion of our first amendment rights. When Alberto Gonzales was in town, we created our own “moveable” protest pen that we moved to wherever we wanted.

    The idea of protest pens, public viewing areas, first amendment zones, etc. etc. are ridiculous and should be ignored whenever possible!

    Also, Lauren there was a great article in the Huffington Post about the McCain campaign sending letters out to fraternities requesting that they “protest” as part of Veterans for Freedom and they would be paid for their participation. It’s eye opening!

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