These days, American democracy is less of a shiny new sports car and more of a beater sedan, missing a wheel or two and dragging itself along in a screeching shower of sparks. To work, democracy requires regular maintenance, continual check-ins and upkeep, or it’ll stall right in the middle of the street. Some would argue that it already has.
Democracy also requires dialogue between different political factions. But according to a 2016 study by Pew Research Center, not only is political animosity in America steadily increasing, but feelings of frustration, fear and anxiety toward the opposing party are also at a 25-year high. Around half of those surveyed indicated that they were “afraid” of the other party, and unsurprisingly, are more likely to surround themselves with those who share their beliefs and values. Needless to say, this doesn’t make for much of a bipartisan discourse.
With the future of democracy in mind, last year the Boots Road Group held an “Is There Hope for Democracy?” panel in Monterey. Apparently, there is hope, since the previously sold-out event is back for a second year—this time with the name “Saving Democracy: National and Statewide Perspectives from Left and Right” along with a new location and several new panelists.
Last year’s panel was all Democratic affiliates, including former Central Coast Congressman Sam Farr; attorney and special assistant to Barack Obama, Adrienne Harris; and Second District Santa Cruz County Supervisor Zach Friend. It was moderated by Managing Partner of Boots Road Group Spencer Critchley. Farr, Friend and Critchley return this year for a second round in Aptos, and opted to include opposing viewpoints this time. The goal of the event is to come up with solutions and bring varying experiences, backgrounds and opinions to the majority-liberal audience in Santa Cruz.
“We said that this year we are going to have the entire political spectrum present when having a broad discussion about democracy,” Friend says of organizing this year’s event. “There is something much larger than partisanship driving who we are as a nation and system today, and [although] we may never vote the same way on those issues, I believe that there are common unifying ideals above it all.”
Kristin Olsen, formerly both the California Assembly Republican leader and vice-chair of the California Republican Party, and leading Republican political strategist Dan Schnur (who is now a No Party Preference voter), will both be present.
“It’s long past time that we move past hyper-partisanship, and get real work done for people,” Stanislaus County Supervisor Olsen says. “Most people are just exhausted by extreme partisanship, myself included, and cliché representation. We have to be able to find ways to work together.”
Olsen, a Modesto native, says that many of her constituents feel that they aren’t represented in California politics, and feel isolated from the otherwise dominant blue coast. Though the election of Donald Trump is a marked victory for the inland valley, it doesn’t change local and state representation.
“Throughout inland California, people feel like their voices aren’t heard,” she says. “They feel left behind.”
Though Adrienne Harris won’t be in attendance this year, Debbie Mesloh has taken her place in the “Saving Democracy” discussion. Mesloh was President Obama’s deputy assistant U.S. trade representative for public affairs, and the transition co-chair for Senator Kamala Harris. Mesloh says that there are many common values that unite parties; concerns about retirement and higher education, for example, extend beyond party borders and aren’t unique to any group in particular.
“There is a crisis of confidence in our democratic systems right now,” Mesloh says. “As people look to the changing nature of journalism and social media, the faith and trust with how they get information or how they make a judgement on which they are going to vote on is changing.”
She adds that many of her friends and family don’t know what or who to trust in the media, believing that outlets like CNN and the New York Times are sometimes not accurate or reliable. If voters can’t trust the media, she says, then there is little hope for voters to stay informed. But Mesloh says the responsibility also falls on politicians to engage their audiences.
“The system of government really needs to modernize and innovate,” she says. “A lot of people really just find it irrelevant to their lives, and that’s a scary thing. We have a lot to do in leadership to translate and make it relevant for people.”
Since President Trump’s election, there have been record numbers of protests, demonstrations and marches, yet local primary voter turnout is still less than 50 percent. Though this year’s numbers won’t be finalized until July 5, around 43 percent of eligible Santa Cruz County voters voted in the June gubernatorial primary—a big jump from 34.8 percent in June 2014, considered the worst voter turnout year ever in California. Still, considering the staggering amount of political involvement, activism and comparatively diverse spectrum of candidates, former Congressman Sam Farr says he expected more.
“I’m appalled when you have any numbers that are less than 70 percent of the people voting,” Farr says. “Evil prevails when enough good people do nothing, and voting is so essential to our culture that we ought to condemn people who aren’t voting.”
Farr blames the media and politicians for a lack of promotion and education around political processes. He also says the virtually nonexistent civic education in schools is hindering young people from understanding the importance of voting.
“In my experiences teaching college classes, students didn’t know the difference between a city council and a congress,” Farr says. “More appalling, they didn’t think they needed to.”
According to Pew Research Center, as of November 2016, an estimated 62 million millennials (age 20 to 35) were voting-age U.S. citizens. Young people represent the largest group of democratic-identifying or leaning voters. Although the total number of eligible young people is encroaching on the 70 million Baby Boomers (age 52 to 70), millennials continue to have the lowest voter turnout of any age group.
“I have never seen people so engaged in politics and the voting actions so low—so high in political interest and so low in actually doing something about it,” Farr says.
Though Santa Cruz is staunchly liberal now, it wasn’t always so. The Golden State began to turn blue in the 1970s, in part because of young people voting. For years, California backed Republicans, delivering electoral votes to Nixon, Reagan and George H.W. Bush. Santa Cruz, too, has a history of bipartisan fluctuation.
“Prior to the university being there, Santa Cruz was one of the most redneck cities in California,” Farr remembers. “As goes Santa Cruz, so goes the state. I think the reason that Santa Cruz changed so much is because society was changing and was willing to adopt more progressive principles … The reason the Republicans lost the majority in California is because they wouldn’t embrace new ideas.”
Republican Donald L. Grunsky represented Watsonville in the state legislature, and eventually served as Senate Republican leader in 1967. Santa Cruz local Frank Murphy Jr. also represented the Californian Republican agenda in the House of Representatives until 1977. Santa Cruz was a sleepy resort town with an abundance of senior citizens, who at the time tended to vote conservative. The population was less than half of what it is now, and UCSC brought an influx of young liberal voters that would help to turn Santa Cruz politics upside down.
“When people came to me in disbelief that Trump was elected, and said the world is coming to an end, I said, ‘No, the world is your backyard and it’s not coming to an end in Santa Cruz and Monterey and the Central Coast of California,’” Farr says. “Local and state government has the tools to solve their problems, with the exception of immigration and marijuana, which require some federal input. So get involved in your community.”
‘Saving Democracy’ will be held from 7-9 p.m. Friday, June 29. Twin Lakes Church, Monschke Hall, 2701 Cabrillo College Drive, Aptos. Free, advance registration required at eventbrite.com.