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Dear Professor: The Only Way to Change Politics Is to Participate in Politics

April 08, 2002|George Skelton


There I was, lounging lazily on a sunny deck overlooking Lake Tahoe, when my eyes fixed on a jarring commentary in the Sacramento Bee. A retired college professor was urging people to boycott voting so they could grab the attention of politicians.

How naive, I thought. It made my sunburn turn redder.

What especially irritated me was the guy's e-mail address: csus. edu. Cal State Sacramento. Here's some academic who has been eating out of the public trough, I figured, but doesn't want the public to help decide how that trough is used.

He denounces a democratic process that has provided him with generous public benefits and California with a first-rate, affordable university system. He wants to boycott the ballot booth and thereby surrender the electoral process to voters who conceivably couldn't care less about CSU, but would spend their tax money on, say, playpens for super-rich pro athletes--or widening corporate loopholes.

Of course, that is not the end result envisioned by retired biology professor Emil Bernstein. He merely wants to send politicians a message: We're fed up.

This is what he wrote, in part, for the newspaper's opinion page:

"Every two years we are told it is Americans' duty to cast their ballots--not just a right or privilege, mind you, but a duty ...

"Did it ever occur to editors that the nonparticipating electorate is delivering its own message to political parties and candidates? We, the people, are fed up with lies and broken promises. Why vote for either candidate when all are thick as thieves?

"Most of the candidates are men and women who sell their services to the highest bidders . . .

"The electorate should stop voting en masse.... We should stop whining for 'campaign finance reform' and demand an end to what we really have: bribery. Like the civil rights actions taken against segregated buses and lunch counters in the 1960s, a national voter boycott must be organized ...

"Maybe a national boycott would get Congress' attention."

There's already practically a boycott, given that only 24% of voting-age citizens cast ballots in the California primary. Others clearly share Bernstein's dismal view of politics.

After returning from vacation, I called the professor. He's a pleasant-sounding man, 72, who taught at the universities of Connecticut and Maryland before moving to Sacramento. Here, he has instructed part time at community colleges and has e-mail privileges at Sac State. He's a lifelong political activist, especially for campaign finance reform.

The reform bill just signed by President Bush is "namby-pamby," the Democrat contends. He wants partial public financing of congressional and state races--but no tax money for negative ads--and lower ceilings on private contributions.

"I'm all for voting and I'm not lazy," he asserts. "But when an idiot out of nowhere like [Bill] Simon can buy himself that [Republican] nomination and when an idiot [Gov. Gray] Davis from the opposite party can spend millions to influence the Republican primary, we don't have democracy anyway. It's an illusion ...

"People shouldn't vote until politicians clean up their act."

By his criteria, however, that could mean never voting again.

There'd definitely need to be some new 1st Amendment interpretations by the U.S. Supreme Court regarding money and speech.

Professor, they're not all "thick as thieves." But that aside, the only way to change politics is to participate in politics. People who don't get no attention.

"If you don't vote and if you don't give money, then you're totally ignored [by politicians]," says Darry Sragow, a Democratic campaign consultant. "If you're not going to help decide the result of my next race, I'm not going to have any time for you."

Moreover, candidates often plot to turn off people from voting who are likely to support their opponent. One aim of negative ads is to sicken people on politics.

Those 69% of registered Democrats who stiffed the March primary? Simon will try to goad them into also stiffing the November election by denigrating Davis. A Bernstein boycott would suit Simon fine.

Davis has the opposite problem. He'll try to demonize Simon and convince Democrats disenchanted with his governorship that they can't trust their fates to this untested conservative. Davis has his work cut out with the professor.

No law requires a citizen to vote. But the law does require that some politician be elected--even if it's only by his wife, mom and guru.

There are many reasons why people don't vote: lazy, disgusted, indifferent, ill. It's inconvenient. They're sending a message. But don't expect any politician to care after election day. No-shows draw no attention.

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