Being heard

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In so many aspects of life, we can find ourselves frustrated because we feel we aren’t being heard. It happens between parents and kids; it happens between spouses; it happens at school and at work.

When we feel our views are dismissed and our needs are ignored, we want to bash a wall, gnash our teeth, trash our rooms or worse.

These feelings can affect us no matter what our age. But perhaps it is even more the case when we are young and perceive our legitimate means of expression to be limited.

I was thinking about this as I read about the many recent protests around the country by high school and college students after last month’s national election.

In this area, students (and faculty) at Towson University walked out of classes in protest; some days later, another group of protesters gathered near Johns Hopkins University and marched to the M&T Bank Stadium during a Ravens game. In Washington, D.C., thousands of protesting students gathered outside the new Trump hotel near the White House.

And in nearby Montgomery County, hundreds of students from several high schools marched for miles down major thoroughfares, snarling traffic for hours. One pro-Trump student who joined that march to argue with protestors was beaten up and taken to a hospital.

In all of these cases, people said they were protesting the fact that Donald Trump won the presidential election. WBAL-TV quoted one protestor as saying, “people need to know that we’re not going to stand for this and that nobody is happy with this.” Another protester was quoted as saying, “We are just exercising our right to protest that the system is corrupt.”

I know none of these protestors is likely to be reading theBeacon right now. But if they were, this is what I’d say to them: I understand how strongly you feel about the election results, and why. I understand and share many of your fears about the future. I even understand the impulse to march around and shout.

But regardless of how you feel about the results of this election, it is not correct to say “the system” is corrupt or that “nobody” is happy with the results. And it is certainly not appropriate to physically attack those who disagree with you.

Think about how nearly half of American voters must have felt when President Obama won reelection in 2012 with 51% of the vote. If you were an Obama supporter, you were elated; if you voted for Romney (who won 48% of the vote), you might have been very unhappy. But neither group could rightly claim that “nobody” was happy, or conversely that “the people” won. In reality, the country was pretty narrowly divided.

The same is true this year. Nobody “stole” anything, and nothing was rigged. The system functioned as it was designed to function: total votes made a difference in each state, but the electoral college gave state-wide totals some additional clout, resulting in a Trump victory.

By design, our system is not a pure democracy. It incorporates elements purposefully crafted by our founding fathers to elevate the influence of states and dilute the voting power of individuals.

One of those elements is the electoral college. Another is having a bicameral legislature, with a Senate (two votes per state) and a House of Representatives (votes based on total population).

These institutions were created in order to offset what the founders saw as the inherent tendency of a pure democracy to trample the views and rights of minorities. There are many younger democracies in the world today without such moderating influences, where majorities regularly stomp on minority rights.

Had the founders refused to take account of differences among the 13 colonies, and their insistence on retaining some state-level clout, those colonies would never have banded together to form the United States in the first place.

And in the 200+ years since, even more differences have come to characterize residents of different parts of the country; rural vs. city dwellers; small states vs. huge ones. 

There is grist here for discussion over whether this system is still best for us today. And as a matter of fact, that issue is being debated right now in Congress and around the country.

Which leads me to another point: It is every citizen’s right to speak to their congressional representatives and express their opinion. In fact, this is the most direct and probably most effective way of influencing policies and laws in this country and bringing about change.

I have been told by several legislators that even a surprisingly modest number of calls or emails from constituents grabs their attention because so few citizens take the time to do so.

Marches and protests may attract media attention, and sometimes capture the imagination of much of the country. But for practical effect in our system of government, you need to get your congressional representatives on board.

Speaking of which, the prime way we exercise influence in this country is by exercising our right to vote. Despite the many months of press coverage, televised debates and commercials that stressed the importance of voter turnout in this election, only 58 percent of registered voters bothered to cast a vote.

That’s actually a pretty respectable percentage, given recent history. But it means that 97 million eligible voters didn’t participate in the process. In my view, if you didn’t participate in the election, you have no grounds to criticize the outcome.

And as for post-election protests, only by engaging in respectful dialogue and recognizing the basic rights and humanity of those we disagree with can we really say that we — and they — will be heard.