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October 23, 2000

Pastor asks what's wrong with
U.S. democracy

By Stacia Brown

For Robert Pastor, professor of political science at Emory since 1985, talking about democracy is second nature. But neither his years as a fellow and founding director of the Carter Center’s Latin American and Caribbean Program, nor his time as a foreign policy advisor to each of the Democratic presidential candidates since 1976, could fully prepare him for his latest adventure: teaching first-semester freshmen.

“What’s Wrong With American Democracy, and How Can We Fix It?” (POLS 190L) marks Pastor’s first experience leading a freshman seminar. He said that working on the Commission on Teaching convinced him that all faculty, even senior-level professors whose time is often spent conducting research or teaching graduate students, have a responsibility to engage Emory’s youngest scholars in a seminar setting.

Three goals form the heart of Pastor’s seminar: empowerment of students to be active democratic citizens; hands-on education about the world outside the classroom; and the ability to study and analyze politics.

To these ends, he has his students reading Robert Putnam, Derek Bok, Joseph Nye and The New York Times. He has them analyzing presidential candidacies and the critical issues underlying their campaigns. And when election day comes, he’ll have students monitoring the electoral process at the polls.

Such requirements may seem a tall order for incoming freshman, but Pastor thinks his group is up to the task. “Trying to get into these kids’ heads is a great challenge,” he said. “It helps to be a father of a college freshman myself.”

Pastor organizes his course around the premise that political participation and trust in government have been declining in the United States since the 1960s. “Our civic participation peaked in the mid-’60s,” he said. “If politics becomes just a spectator sport, our democracy will be endangered.”

“What’s Wrong With American Democracy” is structured both to help students unearth the reasons for this decline and to encourage them to search for solutions. “The best education,” Pastor said, “connects ideas with practical action.” To this end, he requires each student volunteer at a political or non-governmental organization of his or her choice throughout the semester.

Pastor is doing some volunteering, as well: he currently serves as faculty advisor to the Common Cause chapter at Emory. The first such chapter at a major American university, Common Cause is a nonpartisan advocacy group for campaign finance reform. Pastor estimates that about half the members of his class are participating in the chapter this year.

And despite his lengthy legacy of Democratic commitments—particularly his years as an advisor to President Jimmy Carter—Pastor welcomes political diversity in class. “Roughly one-third of my students are Democrats, one-third are Republicans, and one-third are independent or undecided,” he said. “This is an ideal mix.”

Amid this diversity, Pastor must act not only as a policy expert but also historian. “Public distrust is not entirely irrational,” he told students in a discussion on civic disengagement. “The precipitous decline in trust was triggered by key historical events, not just a vague disillusionment or disenchantment.”

After walking students through the Vietnam and Watergate years, Pastor asked whether America’s rising distrust “really matters” in the historical sweep of things.

“One way of answering this question is to say no, our distrust doesn’t matter because Americans have always been highly suspicious of their government,” he said.

In this view, Americans’ current skepticism is merely the latest manifestation of a distrust reflected in the American Revolution and embodied in the Bill of Rights, a document written to protect citizens against governmental abuses. Pastor said such skepticism “keeps the politicians honest.”

But another way of looking at the problem, he said, holds that this distrust has serious consequences for governance and quality of life. “The United States risks turning from a democracy into an oligarchy if our levels of voter participation continue to decline and if the campaign finance system is not reformed,” he said.

From this perspective, citizen apathy will allow government to become—if it is not so already—rule of, by and for the wealthy contributors to election campaigns. And political leaders will ignore groups, such as college students, who fail to vote or participate. “This is why our presidential candidates talk about Social Security and barely mention financial aid for students,” Pastor said.

“The key question,” he concluded, “is what kind of government do you want to have?”


Back to Emory Report Oct. 23, 2000