Democracy On Trial In County Politics

Too bad more Carroll residents did not attend the third annual Ridington Lecture at Western Maryland College last month.

About 75 people attended the lecture and filled virtually all the seats in McDaniel Lounge. They got to hear a provocative discussion of ideas that citizens across this county should ponder.


Gifted writer Taylor Branch spoke on myths surrounding Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, but his underlying theme was that people no longer have the sense of political engagement that infused these leaders.

While Mr. Branch, a Baltimorean and author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of Martin Luther King Jr. "Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954-63," focused his insights on the contemporary state of race and politics in America, many of them could be applied to the state of the public debate on important issues in Carroll County.


For a democracy to work well, Mr. Branch pointed out, people have to have a sense of inquiry, must be willing to engage strangers in debate and should learn something from this vigorous, public discourse.

Pride, he said, is what prevents us from engaging in public discussions of important community issues.

"Pride is when you are so full of yourself that you are no longer interested in anything but yourself," Mr. Branch said. "It is hard to be full of yourself and have a sense of inquiry."

That sense of inquiry seems to be sorely lacking in much of the discussion of county issues. Instead of having an informed, even boisterous, debate on future growth in the county, the condition of the schools or the state of local government, countians seem content to let a few of their fellow residents dominate the discourse.

For example, the county's Southwest Growth Plan may be one of the more crucial growth policy statements of this decade, but too many people have dismissed it with scorn.

Taking their debating cues from the self-appointed, know-it-all, talk show personalities, the critics dismiss the proposed plan as "bringing Columbia to Carroll County." End of discussion, let's move to the next caller.

But this question of future growth in Carroll is immensely complicated. One-line zingers do not come close to covering all the facets of this issue. Too often, the popular answer to the county's relentless growth is "keep it country."

If the Southwest Growth Plan is not the answer, and it may not be, where is the discussion of a better solution?


Silence on this issue is profoundly disturbing, particularly if one has faith that a fully engaged populace conducting a democratic debate can develop better answers.

Where are the civic groups, the citizen activists, the academics and elected officials who should be leading this debate?

This passivity is a real threat to democracy because our system of government depends on people governing themselves.

In his lecture, Mr. Branch pointed out that democracy "runs against human nature" because it requires self-discipline.

Democracy is a system of people governing themselves; each of its members must be responsible and participate. And, responsibility is more than just showing up at the polls on Election Day.

In the past quarter-century, the most vocal elements of our society have been advancing the notion that it is good to have scorn for the government. During the 1960s, the anti-war protesters showed their contempt for government by burning the flag and their draft cards. The disdain for government institutions by the liberal anti-war activists has been replaced by conservatives who consider government to be the source of all our current social problems.


As a result, people can turn their backs on their government and feel good about it. Instead of having democracy, which requires participation, we have the antithesis of democracy -- government as spectator sport.

We sit in our family rooms and watch television programs where partisan pundits hurl invective at each other much the way we would watch a professional wrestling match. We root for the guy espousing our point of view, and ignore all others.

We are in danger of losing the self-discipline necessary to engage people who are different from us and who have different points of view. If democracy is to work and our system of government continue, we have to maintain a level of civilized discourse. Talk radio and calls to a newspaper "Hotline" may make us feel good, but don't advance the public discussion necessary to solve problems.

Unlike failed totalitarian systems of government that specified the final direction of government -- dictatorship of the proletariat, in the case of communism, or a world ruled by a "superior" race of people, in the case of Nazism -- democracy doesn't spell out the final destination.

It only outlines the method for getting there.

"In a democracy," said Mr. Branch, "the process is never finished."


The shape and direction of Carroll's future growth may not be as momentous as the civil rights movement that has been the focus of Mr. Branch's work, but it nevertheless requires people to get up from their couches, and participate in a process with an uncertain destination.

Brian Sullam is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Carroll County.