During the past weekend, I had the opportunity to attend a community meeting sponsored by Pedro Carrillo, democratic candidate for the California's state assembly's 46th district.
Overall, the meeting served as a venue for Carrillo to present his political platform to members of the community. Expecting to hear the traditional political talk of most candidates -- promising everything to everyone, I attended the meeting with some reservations.
His message, however, completely changed my expectations. He simply promised to work hard in representing the interests and needs of his constituents, if elected to the state assembly.
And in reality, I think that is the most honest thing a candidate can say.
Politics are full of changing priorities, reassessments and evaluations. Promises made during the campaign sometimes are not carried out. Thus, in my perception, the only thing a candidate can realistically promise is that he or she will work hard at representing the interests and needs of their constituents in such a dynamic world.
The presentation was a pleasant experience; however a question lingered in my mind the rest of the day:
If politicians play such an important role in reflecting one's interests and needs, why are people so apathetic towards electoral participation?
The fact is that a large percentage of people in California will not participate in the electoral process on March 5th. Although we live in one of the most advanced democracies in the world, many people don't exercise one of their most important democratic rights.
In the past 2000 presidential elections only 51% of the eligible voters nationwide cast their votes (52% in California). And the statistics are grimmer during congressional and state elections (data obtained from the Center for Voting and Democracy at http://www.fairvote.org).
The truth is that the lack of electoral participation is a serious problem that needs to be addressed if we expect democracy to keep flourishing in the United States.
After contemplating this issue for some time, another question emerged: Where and when do people learn about civic duties and responsibilities?
After reflecting on my own personal experience regarding civic education, I realized that that could be the root of the problem. Realistically, how many people can say that they learned something substantive about democracy from their civics class, or other classes for that matter, in high school?
I surely did not.
Although valuable in their own merits, the curriculum currently used in most K-12 schools fail miserably at forming active and responsible citizens. Besides teaching basic information and history of our political system, schools fail to teach students the skills, values and dispositions needed to live in a democracy.
Thus, schools need new curriculum, lessons and activities that can teach the students the true meaning of democracy and the rights and responsibilities that accompanied it. Only by addressing this issue can one expect to solve the lack of electoral participation and the general problem of political apathy in the United States.
I truly hope that the future political winners in the upcoming state elections tackle the issue of civic education. In relation to our Latino community, this issue is of great importance. Only by learning to participate in the political process can we hope to forge a better future.
Oscar E. Cruz has a Masters in Latin American Studies from Georgetown University. He writes for http://www.latininfo.org