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Bob Graham's Call to Service
Former Florida Sen. Bob Graham, chair, Commission on the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction Proliferation and Terrorism, testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, Dec. 11, 2008, before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. (AP)

Former Senator Bob Graham of Florida testifies on Capitol Hill on Dec. 11, 2008. (AP)

Here’s a paradox. We hear a lot these days about populism. But as former Senator and Florida Governor Bob Graham points out, real participation in politics — especially by young Americans, and especially in local politics — remains dismally low.

Graham cites a lot of reasons. Civics courses, if they’re taught at all, are boring. Our media and political parties aren’t doing enough. And the only way to learn how to participate, he says, is to try it out for yourself.

So he’s written a how-to guide. This hour, On Point: Senator Bob Graham and his “owner’s manual” for American democracy.

You can join the conversation. Are you involved in your town hall meetings, or did you throw your hands up long ago? How much do you know about how your local, state and federal governments work?

You can join the conversation. What’s your story of friendship through the years? Tell us what you think — here on this page, on Twitter, and on Facebook.

Guests:

Joining us from Miami, Florida, is former Senator Bob Graham. He represented Florida as a Democrat in the U.S. Senate from 1987 to 2005 and was governor of Florida from 1979 to 1987. He’s now chairman of the Commission on the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction Proliferation and Terrorism and also chairs the Graham Center for Public Service at the University of Florida. His new book is “America, The Owner’s Manual: Making Government Work For You.”

Joining us from Leesburg, Virginia, is Lori Waters, member of the Board of Supervisors for Loudoun County, VA, representing the Broad Run District. She is also former executive director of the Eagle Forum, a conservative interest group founded by Phyllis Schlafly in 1967.

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  • Tim Nitz

    This is a question for Bob Graham:

    I agree that an active electorate is key to democracy. However, when both political parties seem to be virtually identical, it makes voting seem pointless. I had hope in Obama but his actions since taking office show that he is just as beholden to commercial interests as any previous politician. How can we keep our hopes up when they are dashed each election cycle?

  • AJ

    Dear Jane,

    Please ask the senator, about the headline story in the Washington Times this morning about him and speaker Nancy Pelosi being briefed by the White house about these so-called “enhanced interrogation” or “torture” techniques. Was he aware of the water boarding in particular? And when were they made aware?

  • Lee

    I find that the 40-60 age group in local and state government assume that when a constituent contacts them that they expect that the representative solve the individual problem of the constituent rather than solve a systemic issue. I find the narrow-mindedness and very individualistic approach of representatives very frustrating. They often are unable to understand why their constituents are not satisfied when they act as a kind of personal assitant.

  • Clinton in Vermont

    An example from the 1830′s is pretty irrelevant – at that period only white land owning males could vote (and that proportion of the population continues to vote in large numbers today).

    Perhaps we should look at the inefficiencies of our voting process as the root cause of peoples apathy when it comes to voting. It’s all fine and good to say that everyone should vote, but when reality sets in there are many many institutional discrepancies, such as voting machine distribution, that keep wealthy suburbanites voting, and inner city minorities struggling to find any relevant information.

  • AJ

    Did Senator Ghram former top Democrat Senator on the Intelligence committee give the WH a green light on waterboarding technique? Which is torture and therefore against international law by treaty? A technique used in the Spanish Inquisition, Pol Pot in Cambodia, and the Japanese WWII which we prosecuted for war crimes using these very same techniques or did he just vote for authorization to invade Iraq without even reading the full Intelligence assesment?

  • Joyce

    As young people, we would love to participate but we are discouraged.

    When we ask what really happened on 9/11, we are chased out of town. If Bob Graham does know what happened on that day, can he tell us (in a different format); if he does not have a clue, it is his job and duty to get behind the cause and ask for a re-investigation (“re” stands for Real, not repeat).
    We are NOT dillusional!!!

    Can he also tell us Why we investigated Iraq? So that we can be interested in politics and can have something to celebrate about.

  • AJ

    Does he think that the new administration should ok an independent anti=terror interrogation methods truth commission? Or does he think that the DOJ should prosectute individuals if there is evidence of torture?

  • Doshi

    This is a wonderful topic and very timely. I think this past election saw a marked increase in civic participation by young people and other underrepresented groups. I agree with the senator that we could all do more.

    QUESTION: Coverage of local issues in my town paper is shrinking by the week. How will the disappearance of local/metro coverage and newspapers for that matter impact civic participation?

  • Bill Diehm

    I’ve only been able to listen for a little, but is Senator Graham aware of the YMCA Youth in Government program that most states have? My wife teaches in Tennessee, North of Nashville and has taken a group of public high school student to this event for over 13 years. Great program, students become the government, House, Senate, executive branch, supreme court, etc. In Tenn., student are allowed to use the actual Senate and House chambers.

  • AJ

    Were the CIA and outsourced contractors ” Serving America ” when they were water boarding “torturing” detainees at CIA-blacksites OK’d by top congressional intelligence officials both Dems and Repubs. For which the FBI caught wind of these illegal techniques and pull back immediately and got the hell out of dodge.

  • Ellen Dibble

    I find when I make a point to a representative I am told, essentially, to get a lobby, a lobbyist, to show me your numbers. My thought is that if a lobby or organization already was making my point, I would not need to be speaking up. And like the caller who did not have time, especially a convenient time, the practical objective for me is to find people who do have such time.
    Where I live, a lot of meetings are held at a location and a time that is just out of the time window when bus service is available, about a 45-minute walk from the greatest city density. It seems people without cars can be excluded without much worry.

  • AJ

    Ms. Clayson, Will you not address the Senator about these very timely issues. Which go to something far more funcdamental to this Nation’s democracy then some frivolous discussion on middle-school civics class from a Senator who OK’d torture! and an illegal invasion of Iraq under false pretenses. Where 4000 plus American Patriots layed down their lives for!

    Owner’s Manual this…

    Have you no shame Senator?!

  • http://www.discoveringjustice.org Shannon Cain Arnold

    I work for Discovering Justice, a small civic education nonprofit in Boston. What is most striking about the students we work with, beginning in first grade, is how they begin to understand democracy and civic responsibility not through national or even local politics, but from their emerging understanding of themselves as members of school and neighborhood communities. Politics and civic engagement, even on a local level, can seem remote if we don’t start at this most basic level.

  • http://www.howdoweknow.info Stephen Quatrano

    When we list the reasons American citizens are less engaged in our own government we must include the effects of decades of casting the Government in the role of the villain. Framing the debate and “us citizens” against “those bureaucrats” is damaging. Laugh lines like “I’m the Government and I’m here to help” and war cries like “starve the beast” don’t help either. When our conservative intellectuals insist over and over again that “Government is too big” but do not engage in a thoughtful discussion of what is and what is not the role of government is irresponsible at best. Is there any wonder that regulators were not up to the task of overseeing our financial system: we call them “bureaucrats” and demonize them instead of calling them “civil servants” and praising their service.

  • http://info@salemvegan.org Marc Delaney

    Jane and Bob – The problem is purely logistical now. In the early 1900s, Americans learned, through invention, that horses no longer had to be used by humans to achieve their ends. One day soon, I hope, we will similarly learn that we no longer need individual cars to drive down the street to pick up a quart of milk and a loaf of bread at the corner store, that we can walk. When that knowledge is finally unveiled, participation by more adults and young Americans in local politics and civics will begin to increase again. Pray that it happens soon.

  • Glenda Neff

    I have tried to get involved with local politics by becoming active in one of the two dominant parties at the local level – the people who choose who gets the endorsements and then (can) get people elected. I am now on the county party committee. I see a real need for democratization of how these parties work! It is definitely hard for a new person to participate. No orientation, little communication – the process and “rules” are kept a secret.

  • Bill Ling

    What do we do when one party proclaims that “government” is the problem?

  • AJ

    The Fifth Amendment is a favorite of mine too.

  • Rebecca Harris Kotula

    I’d like to toss in my recommendation for a weekend workshop that was very helpful to me in understanding involvment in the local political process: The Daniel Pennock Democracy School. This is offered by the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund (CELDF) and Richard Grossman. I urge folks who are as yet unacquainted with local activism to check this out.

  • Ken Hall

    Perhaps Bob Graham will address the real problem with citizen indifference to Government participation; Big money ownership of Government via lobbying activities by such. How can ordinary citizens compete with the Government of the Obscenely Wealthy, by the Obscenely Wealthy, for the Obscenely Wealthy?

  • AJ

    Thank you, Jane. Well done. Tom could not have a better partner.

  • jeffe

    I have a call to all representatives in both houses;
    stop taking campaign money from spacial interest.
    Our system is broken, as soon as they are in office they are looking for money.

    Without the reform of this system there will not be any change.

    I would like to see a moratorium on lobbying, of course there are good causes that would get caught in this net.
    However we must remember in Nixon’s day there were only about 200 lobbyist in Washington, now there are thousands.

    It has corrupted the system.

  • Sue, MU ’80

    Good discussion.

    A technical point: former Senator Graham chairs the Graham Center for Public Service at the University of Florida. Miami University is in Ohio.

  • Mike

    i was curious if for mass. if there are groups/orginizations that promote or push for more voting boths,or can info people on when local and state votes are going to be carried out?

    i often dont hear until the day it is happening, being in my 20′s i love to get more involved.

    I do agree some in the system makes it harder to get involved. even 2 weeks after i voted in nov.

    living in a small conserv, wealth town i got a letter saying i needed to name my party not once but twice once in August and another a few weeks after i voted in nov.
    It said if i was still going to vote,i need to verified where i lived and respond within 7 days(so actually 3 to 4 day since it marked for the day they sent it not when i got it)

    or i be taking off the voting list yet my roommate with opposing view did not receive a letter at all

    even know i personally went down to give this information to them 2 months before and vote everytime i get a chance.

    curious if this was legal what my town was doing?along with selective mailing of local town hall meetings.

  • millard-fillmore

    “How can we keep our hopes up when they are dashed each election cycle?”

    Tim, start voting for third party candidates. There’s Green Party, Libertarian Party and independents like Ralph Nader who contest elections regularly. You could start with exploring their stance on issues and supporting them if you agree, and asking programs like On Point and newspapers to start covering independents and third parties, instead of black-listing them.

    Or, you could always contest an election yourself (maybe at a local level) if you think you have a stance on issues that’s not being covered by the corrupt two parties. I would gladly decide to vote for you based solely on issues without allowing “lesser of the two evils” or political identity to compromise my voting decision.

  • AJ

    Correction: With respect to Senator Graham, who indeed voted against invasion of Iraq in 02′. With so many of his democratic colleagues voting for it, he had a birds eye view of the intelligence and the bogus case for war, and voted correctly. However, the question of what he knew about interrogation methods and waterboarding in particular remains unclear. His denial of knowlege when questioned on the show, seems contradictory to news reports. But the matter is still unfolding and somewhat murky. Stay tuned.

    But in regards to Iraq, the Senator has my respect.

    Thank you

  • millard-fillmore

    “I work for Discovering Justice, a small civic education nonprofit in Boston. What is most striking about the students we work with, beginning in first grade, is how they begin to understand democracy and civic responsibility not through national or even local politics, but from their emerging understanding of themselves as members of school and neighborhood communities. Politics and civic engagement, even on a local level, can seem remote if we don’t start at this most basic level.”

    Shannon, that’s indeed admirable. But what I’ve noticed is that from a younger age, students are brain-washed into accepting the corrupt duopoly – in mock elections, seven and eight year olds in schools are offered only two choices – Democrats and Republicans – to choose from, which fosters a political identity (R or D), which results in being closed to the idea of supporting third parties or independents, and a two-party system becomes the accepted norm, making it difficult for third parties to get support, as is evident from so many adults and intellectuals being downright inimical to third party candidates, instead of welcoming their participation in a democracy, even if they may disagree with their stance on issues. I have come across reports in Boston Globe about only two choices in mock elections in schools, as well as know from experience as told by my friend’s daughter.

    Does your organization remain non-partisan and promote multi-party democracy, and if so, how? Or does it indirectly promote a two-party system? I’m curious to know.

  • Sierra Johnson

    I am a young democrat who recently received my B.A. in Political Science. There is no voice inspiring generation X-ers that the government IS full of hard working, honest people who still ideailze the purity of Jefferson and Adams and the vision they had for this country. We need to restore our government to a system that young Americans can idealize and look up to, not one that is littered with greed, corruption and crime.

  • Lindsay Jaroch

    When I was in Jr. High and High School I never learned anything about civics. Going on to college I tried to take a course but I just didn’t understand. It’s unfortunate because I really want to get involved now but I feel like I’m so behind I can’t help because I hardly know what’s going on!

  • millard-fillmore

    “How can ordinary citizens compete with the Government of the Obscenely Wealthy, by the Obscenely Wealthy, for the Obscenely Wealthy?”

    Ken Hall, we live in America which has one of the freest societies in the world with so many resources available to citizens. I always find such despondency and lack of ideas very puzzling, when people in countries like Bolivia had no problem organizing among themselves and battling a mighty giant like Bechtel (in bed with their government), when it came to the issue of water. Those people in Cochabamba, compared to Americans, had very limited resources available to them, yet were able to push back.

    There’s nothing stopping you from organizing friends and like-minded people around any issue you care for, and put pressure on your elected representatives. But that will require some time + energy, and putting watching the latest episode of Survivor or Dancing with the Stars (or whatever TV program is in vogue) on the back-burner, and rearranging the priorities. :)

    There’s nothing stopping you from voting for a third party candidate who is not beholden to special interests.

    You would have a case if there were no honest and principled candidates contesting elections, but we haven’t come to that stage yet. There were at least five candidates to choose from in Nov 2008 to vote for the office of the President.

  • millard-fillmore

    correction: “free-est societies”

  • MAT

    Several years ago, a friend who taught high school government in NJ developed one of the most creative and inspiring student projects I’ve ever come across: He ran for U.S. Senate in a campaign completely run by his students. They developed his party (“Future Now Party”) and platform, gathered signatures to get him on the ballot, wrote speeches, did PR and polling. The point wasn’t to win–they did no fundraising–but to give students hands-on experience in the political process and get the more viable candidates to address issues that were important to young people.

    His campaign got the attention of other Senate candidates, the national media and the community, and most importantly, demonstrated how young people can make a difference.

    If my own kids have experiences even half as amazing as this when they’re in high school, I’ll be pleased.

  • Nate in Boston (26 yrs old)

    First, I agree with Ken Hall. Second, there is such a divide with the current thinking of our elected officials (average age is 60+ years old at the federal level) and my generation regarding how you “get involved and get things done”. Mr Graham wants the younger generation to engage in what I see as “The Good Old Boys Network”, minding our place, listening to those who have more experience, and become “groomed” for public service. My generation sees a problem and we want to attack it and have immediate action. Why waste my time trying to convince 60+ year old politicians that I have a decent idea that deserves to be heard (and subsequently killed in some subcommittee) when I can engage like-minded people globally via twitter, blogs, etc and accomplish far more in less time?

    The paradigm of social involvement is changing and the masses are becoming less dependent on our elected officails to get things done. Afterall I think they have clearly demonstrated that when it comes to getting things done it is our government that has failed. Why would I turn to Graham and his cronies if I actually wanted positive action on something I care about?

    Why should I lobby my elected officials to appropriate money to rehab a run down park (locally that takes 2 – 3 years) when I can set-up a blog w/a donation page, twitter my followers, and get the park rehab’d in less than 6 months?

    The problem is not a lack of desire on my generations part. The problem is the design of the current political environment. If my generation wanted to sit in a room and simply talk about getting things done we’d follow Mr Graham’s lead.

    Government at all levels has proven itself ineffective at getting things done. Locally the Mayor of Boston had a press conference this morning regarding his re-election campaign and dodged EVERY questions about his record. Nationally I am seeing my elected officials WASTING TIME debating whether our President should shake the hands of certain world leaders.

  • http://None Dana Franchitto

    AS a believer in democracy, I feel one of its most serious domestic enemies is corporate America and the cult of crass consumption it encourages. It views us as simply consumers of goods and services rather than citizens of a democracy who must make informed choices . Hence it the last thing these business elites want is for us to develop the crucial critical thinking skills needed to be intelligent citizens.it’s pitiful when more people know the score on “American idol or Survivor than they do the real platform of any candidates for office or the pertinent issues.

  • Alex Conrad

    When considering the type and quality of civics taught it in public school, it may be interesting to determine what portion of legislators and other public officials are actually products of public schools. Fmr. President Bush certainly wasn’t. Sen. Kennedy, of course, isn’t. Was anyone?

  • http://ChangeHallandale.com Mike Butler

    Asking questions to hold accountable my local government resulted in me being sued!

    I’ve become active in my local government by reviewing my city’s performance and determining there is significant waste. A recent public records request exposed the city manager’s compensation in 2008 was over $422,000. The City has been taking money from its reserve fund for the past three years. It wasn’t able to cover its expenditures during the unprecedented recent property value increases, despite having a huge increase in new construction during that same time. And since 2004 it has increased its debt 7-fold.

    I’ve been making public records requests for information…nothing requiring much effort, but things like the city manager’s pay as I mentioned.

    Last week, the City sued me to prevent the release of what they are saying isn’t a public record. Its an obvious attempt at intimidation, and will cost me a lot of money just to defend myself. Every attorney says the same thing…its a frivolous lawsuit. But the State of Florida isn’t defending its Sunshine Law…no, its up to a private citizen with limited resources to fight the government.

    Do you really have to wonder why citizens aren’t more active?

  • Meghan Griffith

    As a freshman college student, I must say that the lack of interest amongst my peers in the politics that affect their daily life is very real and very disconcerting. While I hardly expect everyone my age to be tuning in regularly to CSPAN or to keep tabs on every piece of legislation being debated on the floor of the House or Senate, it’s shocking to learn that they don’t have ANY interest whatsoever in the state of our economy, the agenda of our president, or the current affairs of international relations. The most common excuse for this that I hear is that “the government is broken”, which only frustrates me more. Don’t they realize that a problematic government can only be fixed if its citizens take the initiative to get involved in it, especially the ones in our age bracket? Are we as a generation going to throw up our hands and refuse to dirty our hands with politics because it isn’t as entertaining, frivolous, or popular as the newest reality show on MTV? This sort of fatalistic and derisive attitude towards politics needs to be addressed. If not, I worry that my age group will be completely written off by our politicians and that our government will ultimately be inherited by a generation that doesn’t care about it at all.

  • charlie

    i’ve always had trouble wanting to be involved in politics because it seems that most american’s opinions are shaped by the media so that any one who thinks outside of the ‘democrat’ or ‘republican’ boxes are pegged unpatriotic or socialist. there’s very little voice for third parties and they’re portrayed as jokes and lesser parties, and aren’t even allowed in presidential debates without the consent of dem. and rep. this gives me the impression that other views aren’t welcome in this “democracy”

  • ms

    I agree with Sen Ghramm on the roles that dilutions in civics courses and general public apathy plays in lowering the civic involvement.

    But one can also look at how competing interests can contribute to civic involvement as well. For example, one can see professional lobbying as filling in the “gap” caused by lessened public civic involvement attributable to public apathy.

    But one can also see that public frustration can be created by involvement of professional lobbying that caters to interests that may not be reflective of the public interest as a whole. The fact that elections and maintaining public office (for many if not most high-level elected positions) has become very expensive has greatly increased the significance of “soft money” contributions.

    Yes federal law restricts these contributions, but these restrictions are placed on individuals (not lobbying groups, per se). This means that, generally, lobbying groups and other similar entities are more effective in gaining the attention of candidates (both incumbents and challengers). Resources other than money can, generally, also be marshaled and used more easily by professional lobbying groups (and other groups formed by particular interests) than the general public. These resources, in turn, can be used to “punish” candidates who appear to “threaten” the goals of professional lobbyists (for example, indirectly by supporting an opposing candidate or more directly by helping to spread information affecting the reputation of the targeted candidate/official).

    In the face of all of this, one is tempted to ask: what has happened to efforts towards campaign-finance reform? For it seems legislative bills that have been introduced have stalled in Congressional halls.

  • ms

    I agree with Sen Ghramm on the roles that dilutions in civics courses and general public apathy plays in lowering the civic involvement.

    But one can also look at how competing interests can contribute to civic involvement as well. For example, one can see professional lobbying as filling in the “gap” caused by lessened public civic involvement attributable to public apathy.

    Even so, one can also see that public frustration can be created by involvement of professional lobbying that caters to interests that may not be reflective of the public interest as a whole. The fact that elections and maintaining public office (for many if not most high-level elected positions) has become very expensive has greatly increased the significance of “soft money” contributions.

    Yes federal law restricts these contributions, but these restrictions are placed on individuals (not lobbying groups, per se). This means that, generally, lobbying groups and other similar entities are more effective in gaining the attention of candidates (both incumbents and challengers). Resources other than money can, generally, also be marshaled and used more easily by professional lobbying groups (and other groups formed by particular interests) than the general public. These resources, in turn, can be used to “punish” candidates who appear to “threaten” the goals of professional lobbyists (for example, indirectly by supporting an opposing candidate or more directly by helping to spread information affecting the reputation of the targeted candidate/official).

    In the face of all of this, one is tempted to ask: what has happened to efforts towards campaign-finance reform? For it seems legislative bills that have been introduced have stalled in Congressional halls.

  • ms

    Sorry for the double entry. First time, I got an error message.

  • millard-fillmore

    charlie,

    I myself have encountered this deep prejudice from my educated, open-minded and well-informed friends (all Democrats) who think nothing of making thoughtless statements putting down my support of third parties, while they think that the Democrats are the epitome of ethical/liberal values and above reproach/criticism, contrary to facts. But I often challenge them on it instead of self-censoring myself, though I have to admit that it has led to some straining of friendship, since I am a minority. So it hasn’t been an easy ride for me and I’ve struggled to balance the two – friendship vs. speaking my mind.

    Obama’s example gives me hope that we can counter and defeat this deep prejudice that so many people indulge in, but are blind to. It will take much effort, but it’s doable.

    I think mainstream media is much to blame for this attitude, as they black-list third party candidates, instead of inviting them to the shows or writing about them without prejudice.

    You could also network with members of third party on Facebook and other internet forums.

  • Justin Hughes

    The section of this program that used the example of Candice Lightner and the organization MADD was extremely problematic. This organization has caused irreparable harm on the fabric of our society. Lightner herself also became critical of the way the organization evolved during the 1980′s, saying it “has become far more neo-prohibitionist than I had ever wanted or envisioned … I didn’t start MADD to deal with alcohol. I started MADD to deal with the issue of drunk driving”. These self imposed moral crusaders do not address the underlying issue that cars, whether their drivers are sober or not, are very dangerous, and that the real problem is not alcohol consumption but the car based infrastructure that mandates drunk driving for anyone who wants to have a social life. This is the same mindset that led to Prohibition in the 1920′s. This organization is a poor choice to give for an example of constructive citizen advocacy. The 21 drinking age also, by the way, is extremely stupid. Three years go by very fast and then people just behave at the age of 21 like they would earlier, and thus have less time to learn how to drink socially.

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