WACO, Tex., February 28, 2013 - I recently had the pleasure of seeing “Born Yesterday,” an intellectual comedy directed by Jessi Hampton at the Baylor Department of Theatre Arts. The play was originally written by Garson Kanin and first performed in 1946. Set in Washington D.C.,It follows the story of Billie Dawn, mistress of the rough junkyard tycoon, Harry Brock. She is taken advantage of by Brock’s bribery and corruption, completely unaware of the consequences of his actions.
The play documents Billie’s education in the realms of politics and history as she learns to understand Brock’s unethical actions while discovering the beauty of a democratic system. Becoming politically informed allows her to stand up against the injustice in politics.
The plot carries remarkable similarities to our political system today. The danger political ignorance poses to our society can be easily seen by recent statistics. According to George Mason historian Rick Shenkman, only two of five voters can name the three branches of the government, and 49% of Americans think the President has the right to suspend the Constitution.
Ilya Somin, professor of law at George Mason University, agrees that this political ignorance threatens our democratic system. He says, “Democracy demands an informed electorate […] Voters who lack sufficient knowledge may be manipulated by elites. They may also demand policies that contravene their own interests.”
So why not stay “independent” of politics? Many assume independents are free-thinkers, not tied to a particular partisan agenda, and generally more intellectual than those who identify as either conservative or liberal. However, this theory supposes an idealistic view of independents that starkly contradicts empirical observations.
According to a 2008 American National Election Study by the University of Michigan, independents are much less likely to follow current events, research political information, watch the news, or donate to candidates than those who report an affiliation with one political party. Most self-declared independents also confess to “leaning” toward one side or another. Those who do are almost 20% more likely to vote than “pure independents.”
Choosing a political side does not indicate a sacrifice of reason, principles, or free thinking. Party labels do not imply blind adherence to the agenda. The choice of party instead reflects a coherent set of informed decisions. Those who are not ashamed to stand behind their political convictions have already done much clear, rational analysis to decide which party or candidate best fits their views on most issues. There are still varying degrees on the left-right continuum, but a middle grounded in apathy is not the ideal place to be by any means.
According to “Born Yesterday” director Hampton, “It is harder for people to be taken advantage of, by government or anybody else, if they are well-educated, which is why Devery (a character in the play) exclaims, ‘A little education is a dangerous thing.’”
Admittedly, “Born Yesterday” takes on a slightly idealistic nature. It is naive to think that if only American citizens (especially independents) would read a little more, the problems of government would magically be wiped away. Becoming politically informed may not solve all of society’s problems, but it is a good place to start.
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