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Our unappreciated democracy

Bob Kessler | Thursday, January 17, 2008

On Dec. 27, Benazir Bhutto was tragically assassinated outside a political rally in Rawalpindi, Pakistan. Later that day, I embarked from my parent’s house in Northbrook, Ill. for the state of Iowa, where I would learn more about politics in a few days then I have in any poli sci class yet. Half a world away from Pakistan, I set out to film a documentary about the Iowa caucuses, but what I found was real, untarnished democracy that is seemingly taken for granted.

Across southeastern Iowa I met with normal people who were far more involved with the political process than average people from other states. People like Gregory Monroe, a democrat who I spoke with at an Obama rally in Muscatine. He had personally seen many of the candidates, and was struggling to determine who to caucus for. He felt that there were a lot of great candidates to choose from this year and was using his personal meetings with the candidates to help him determine which person was the most honest and qualified to lead this country. While he felt privileged to be able to personally see all of the candidates in Iowa, he might not have fully recognized how fortunate he was.

Benazir Bhutto’s death was hanging over my trip to Iowa. She was a former Prime Minister of Pakistan who was the first woman to lead a Muslim country. When she died, she was the leader of the opposition party, and a strong voice in bringing Pakistan back toward democracy. She died in a suicide attack while leaving a campaign rally in preparation for elections that have now been postponed due to her death.

At campaign events in Iowa, similar to the one where Bhutto was killed, I saw leaders of what could be considered our opposition party talk about the need for change. John Edwards told a group of supporters in Tipton that he was here to fight for the working class. Barack Obama told a crowd in Muscatine that he knew how to bring change because he had been bringing it his entire life. Both men criticized the ruling party, but their lives were not in danger.

In fact, Iowans seemed very receptive to these ideas of change as Senator Obama and former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee won the caucuses using honest tactics to spread their ideas about change. Huge crowds turned out to their events as the candidates were able to shake hands with hundreds of Iowans in the weeks leading up to the caucuses. People were not concerned about what might happen if they supported opposition candidates, and they were free to participate in real democracy. Their choices were not influenced by the state or even the media, but by their opinions after personal encounters with the candidates.

In most of the United States the media and advertisers dominate the political landscape, but in Iowa, democracy is what it was meant to be. Candidates are truly chosen by the people, and retail politics is the way they make their decision. Candidates are able to develop personal relationships with voters, and the voters are able to gain trust in the candidates. This is not only made possible by Iowa’s first-in-the-nation status, but also by the strong democratic traditions of the United States.

In Pakistan, a woman was killed for trying to restore democracy to the country, and she was killed at a rally similar in intent to the ones I attended in Iowa. It is not as if this attack came as a surprise either. Earlier in 2007, Bhutto had also been the target of an assassination attempt, but she soldiered on in an attempt to bring democracy back to the troubled nation.

When I was in Iowa, I came within feet of several of our presidential candidates. John Edwards, Barack Obama, Ron Paul, and Mike Huckabee were all close enough that I might have shaken their hands if I was not preoccupied with filming them shake other people’s hands. Yet, I never felt I was in danger. In the United States we sometimes get so caught up in our own political differences and we sometimes become so enamored with criticizing certain candidates that we forget how lucky we are to be able to safely participate in our democracy.

In Iowa, citizens are even luckier as they are able to personally meet our political candidates, and discuss their merits through a caucus process. Nobody gives any thought to the fact that it might be unsafe to go to events where the opposition candidates are speaking and presenting their views, let alone opposition candidates who are mainly arguing for democracy in general.

So as our presidential nominating process continues, and much of the country votes on Super Tuesday, I urge everybody to go out and vote. People rarely contemplate the luxuries we are granted by being born into this country and we must not forget the millions of people in our world who do not have the same rights that we have. While Iowans are particularly lucky, we must remember how privileged we are as Americans living in our United States.

Bob Kessler is a junior majoring in political science and economics. He

is also a writer for the Web site SaltyStix.com. He can be contacted at [email protected]

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not

necessarily those of The Observer.