October 23, 2000
Pastor asks what's wrong
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 Centers 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.
Whats Wrong With American Democracy, and How Can We Fix It?
(POLS 190L) marks Pastors 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
Emorys youngest scholars in a seminar setting.
Three goals form the heart of Pastors 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, hell 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.
Whats 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 commitmentsparticularly
his years as an advisor to President Jimmy CarterPastor 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 Americas rising distrust really matters
in the historical sweep of things.
One way of answering this question is to say no, our distrust doesnt
matter because Americans have always been highly suspicious of their government,
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
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 becomeif
it is not so alreadyrule 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?