by Bob Fung
After decades of service to our community, the Davis chapter of the League of Women Voters voted to disband last year. Their efforts over many years should be highly applauded and valued. They provided a valuable service to the citizens of Davis by helping their own members and the voting public become educated about local, state, and national issues and holding non-partisan candidate forums in many Davis elections. But they did not have younger members in the chapter that would take over the leadership positions and the leaders finally could not continue after many years of faithful service. (The chapter’s website is still operational but the chapter itself has disbanded).
Voters these days are faced with a cacophony of TV ads, mailers, press releases, newspaper advertisements etc., most of which are designed to persuade the voter to a single point of view. The League of Women Voters provided non-partisan, civil candidate forums in which the voter could hear views of the candidates on important issues. Not only that, but voters could participate in the process by asking their own questions at the forums. In the last couple of years I attended several of the League’s candidate forums in Davis and found them to be highly informative and useful for my own voting purposes. In today’s hyper-partisan political environment, more not less of these kinds of forums should be available to voters.
The League of Women Voters is a national organization which does great work for the American voter. Founded in 1920 as part of the women’s suffrage movement, the League operates at the national, state, and local levels and has grown to more have more than 1,000 local chapters as well as one in every state. For many years, the national chapter hosted presidential debates. In recent years, the League has started to offer more and more online resources including: vote411.org, their online voter registration website; and smartvoter.org, which helps voters look up information about contests and candidates that will be on their ballot.
The League of Women Voters is an important component of America’s “civil society.” Civil society is the “aggregate of non-governmental organizations and institutions that manifest interests and will of citizens” (Wikipedia article on Civil Society). In Davis, civil society is made up of many organizations. A few include: the Davis Bike club, the Odd Fellows, Interfaith Winter Rotating Shelter etc. Civil society has a critical function to play in our society; it is a primary mechanism for “structuring and channeling citizen debates over diverse ideas and conflicting interests.”
Civil society has been a lively in some ways unique component of our society. Alexis de Tocqueville, a French political thinker, came to the United States in 1831 and, based on his observations, wrote Democracy in America which appeared in 1835. He writes: “The political associations that exist in the United States are only a single feature in the midst of the immense assemblage of associations in that country. Americans of all ages, all conditions, and all dispositions constantly form associations”. (Chapter 5 of Democracy in America).
In his book Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, published in 2000 and developed from his 1995 essay, “Bowling Alone: America’s Declining Social Capital,” Robert Putnam has argued persuasively that the health of our civil society has declined significantly. He describes the reduction in membership in civic organizations and shows that memberships have not transferred to other organizations. In addition, he discusses ways in which Americans have disengaged from political involvement including lower voter turnout and and attendance at public meetings. Perhaps this decrease in the health of our civil society has contributed to the hyper-partisanship we are seeing now and the large amounts of money being spent to “influence” the American voter.
Davis has a vibrant, growing civil society. Lets make sure it stays healthy. There are lots of things for you to do. Whatever interest you have there is an organization that you can join to further that interest. Interested in music? Volunteer at the Mondavi Center. Interested in gardening, books, youth soccer? There is an organization in town for you. Check out volunteer opportunities at this page at the daviswiki. The Davis Enterprise has regular announcements from local groups or a checkout www.meetup.com for groups meeting in Davis.
Kudos to the League of Women Voters!