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Markowitz: Civics Silver Lining

For more than 200 years, Vermonters have come together on or around the first Tuesday in March to elect local officials, vote on budgets and discuss the important issues of our time.

Because of this, Vermonters, more than many, feel close to government. We feel entitled to understand and be a part of a process that’s both transparent and fair. We believe in civil debate and that it’s up to us to speak up when we see injustice.

Maybe that’s why it’s been so difficult for many of us to accept the new leadership in Washington. Discrimination against religious minorities, jokes about sexually assaulting women, and mockery of people with disabilities is inconsistent with the fundamental principles of our state - and our country.

But on the silver lining side: Americans who’ve never been engaged in the political system are paying attention – and getting a crash course in the rules of democracy and the Constitution.

Time was that most Americans assumed democracy meant "the majority rules." But after the recent election saw the losing candidate receive nearly three million more votes than the winner, we see outraged voters demanding to end to the antiquated Electoral College.

When the court jumped in to block the immigration ban, we experienced, first hand, the power of our constitutional system of checks and balances between the branches of government.

Attacks on the press and confusion over “alternative facts” or fake news have been a important reminder that a free press is vital to keep us informed and to hold government accountable. As a result, newspaper and journal subscriptions are soaring; The New York Times has added nearly one hundred and fifty thousand new subscribers.

People who used to be disengaged from politics are showing up for marches and spontaneous rallies. They're finding time to call, write and email their representatives. They’re packing Congressional town hall meetings and voicing anger and concern about a host of issues. They’re organizing and working on strategies to preserve our fundamental ideals, like separation of church and state, and freedom and equality for all.

So this Town Meeting Day, we might all take a moment to cherish our democratic traditions and appreciate the many freedoms we enjoy in our great, but vulnerable democracy. And to paraphrase our founding father Thomas Jefferson, remember that “the best defense of democracy is an informed and active electorate.”

Deb Markowitz is the Director of Policy Outreach at UVM’s Gund Institute of Environment, and she formerly served as Vermont’s Secretary of State and as the Secretary of Vermont’s Agency of Natural Resources.
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