In 1919 when H. B. Alexander wrote his essay, Education and Democracy, the radio was slowly replacing the newspaper as the preferred source of news. The Great War was finally ending, movies were becoming more popular, and while not obsolete, the print industry was beginning to feel the rise and power of radio. The airways would soon reach into even the most remote corners of America where news, culture, and sports could be heard by any family that bothered to circle around the family radio after the day’s work. Popular shows such as The Grand Ol’ Opera and professional baseball games were broadcast live, and newsworthy events, such as political reports, were reported soon after they happened. The radio was a vehicle that was bringing news to listeners almost as quickly as it happened and perhaps that is why Alexander writes the following in his essay: “Your [citizen] ballot is a judgment of the candidate’s character; and this is exactly what it should be, for this is the one thing that you are qualified, as a voter, to pass upon.”
A philosopher, poet, college teacher, and scholar, H.B. Alexander was responding, I like to think, to the radio’s influence on our Democracy and the new way voters were informed about elected officials. Until the advent of the radio, news more likely arrived later than sooner on printed pages, but the radio gave almost immediate voice to politicians and the chance for voters, as immediately, to evaluate the words and actions of elected officials. Now the voice and tenor of leaders such as President Roosevelt could be heard by American families sitting in their homes. His “fireside chats” by radio comforted an uneasy country during the Great Depression and World War II.
Those broadcasts and others seem crude when compared to the instant news that any person can find all day, seven days a week. The radio broadcast, while still alive, competes with news over a myriad of television channels that can be accessed on television sets, computers, even cell phones. Today voters are informed of political words and acts almost as soon as they are spoken or committed. We now, for instance, can watch our elected school boards, county supervisors, U.S. Senators, and others working for our behalf. With all the cameras and microphones present, there are few, if any secrets, for elected officials to have. The pathetic case of U.S. Senate candidate Cal Cunningham of N.C. is an example of how public the lives of elected officials (and others) have become.
The media reports and we consume as we form opinions of those on which reports are made. What we know of them is what we are told by 3rd parties such as Fox News, ABC, NPR, and a host of other outlets. However, at times we are able to observe our elected officials in action, such as the unfortunate California school board members who disparaged parents on “live mics.” Oops, they all resigned, as they should have. In such a situation, it does not take much insight to see the character, or lack of, in the school board members. The same holds true when we see Senator Cruz returning hastily from a trip to Cancun as his state suffers. We hear his lies about the trip.
Alexander told his readers that they, while not experts in foreign affairs, or economics, or other fields, were qualified to pass upon the character of elected officials. We are much more informed than the voters of 1919, and that information should lead us to assess the character of our elected officials. So when we hear Senator Graham say to “hold my words against me”, we should, and vote him out of office.
We need leaders who are informed on many topics, but they must also be people of character. If they won’t be honest with themselves, they won’t be honest with voters.