December 2009
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The importance of political debate


by Toni Seger


"We're not going there." That's what I was told when I asked for a political table at my town's Old Home Days festival. "No political announcements", said the President of an environmental group about a visiting politician with an excellent environmental record. "Nothing political!", I was told when I asked a friend to hang a poster for a political fund raiser in her gift shop and so on... What amazes me is the vehemence just behind the fear in their voices.  How, I wonder, did the exercise of free speech get to be so dirty?


Because the possibility of a chat is clearly off the table, I can't even find out what it is they're afraid is going to happen and that's the part that scares me the most. Whether people are afraid the discussion will be stupid or offensive, the worst thing they can do is stop talking entirely because silence is the greatest threat to the longevity of any democratic system. When I hear commentators say we're a divided country, I think the biggest thing dividing us is our lack of a dialogue.


I don't mind disagreeing with other people or having them express their disagreements to me. I expect that any society, regardless of size, will produce a variety of different perspectives on every issue, large or small. Reaching a consensus across perspectives can be challenging, but handled correctly it's also potentially uplifting and certainly educational. What frightens me is when the opportunity to explore this process is withheld or blocked because that's not an atmosphere in which democracy can thrive.


If we can't talk about our differences, how will we preserve our democratic way of life? Democracy isn't something you can take for granted and preserve, at the same time. You have to earn it by participating, not just on election day, but whenever the opportunity presents itself, in the free exchange of ideas and beliefs. Like anything organic, a free system will grow and change over time serving up new questions and new challenges on a regular basis.


The formal exercise of democracy known as politics is a continual debate on the essential issues facing a particular forum whether it exists on the local or the national level. The founding fathers couldn't have anticipated most, if not all, of the issues we face. What they gave us was the means to air and resolve our differences in a free forum.


The truth is, we really can't conceive of a society in which there are no disagreements, not a sane one, anyway. New England town meetings which are probably the purest form of democracy can, at times, be tedious, humorous, even raucous, but within this annual rite is also a wonderful celebration of our nation's history. We all know that when dictators announce they have the support of 98 percent of the population, the inverse is probably closer to the truth.


Whether the debate concerns street lighting or sending young people to war, the democratic process is how we make those decisions that affect society, as a whole, from a  tiny town to a large country. Every day, in different parts of the world, people will lose their life fighting for the principle of representative government. Ironically, at the same time, people, in this country, will ignore or refuse to participate in the free process they were gifted with at birth and, in this manner, disenfranchise themselves.


Power itself is neutral. It can and will flow in any direction open to it. Evil takes hold in societies where people can't or won't police their political system with frequent and vigorous debate. Those who would abuse the system will always depend on a passive electorate for maintaining their power.


All of us can't be right about everything, of course, but fortunately, that isn't necessary. Exercising your democracy through reasoned debate is just like exercising your body. Doing it regularly is good for your health.


Some people will read this and still insist that, at times, political disagreements can get ugly and I totally agree. My point is, the alternative to political debate, is always ugly.


Co-owner of a media/communications firm; ProseWorks(tm) Associates since 1992, Toni Seger has been a professional writer for four decades. Seger is the author of "The Telefax Box", the first in a satiric trilogy about our overly mechanized lives available at She has produced and directed original plays for stage and television and is an award winning film maker with endorsements from Maine Public Broadcasting. Her film, "The Force of Poetry" is available at