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Editorial: Understanding how W.Va. government works is essential to democracy

From The Journal of Martinsburg:


Many Americans don’t understand their government.

It’s true we can’t comprehend lawmakers who fail to listen to their constituents, seem unable to reach a compromise, make a deal or get things done. But, that’s not actually what we’re talking about.

We’re talking about the ugly truth that many citizens simply do not know how their government works. This is unfortunate for many reasons, the most alarming of which — those who don’t understand their government won’t be able to participate in it fully.

The good news is this: Basic interest in civic education is on the rise, said Ray Smock, current director of the Byrd Center for Congressional History and Education, in a recent press release.

Smock, who is also a former historian at the U.S. House of Representatives, is part of a cooperative effort — which includes the Byrd Center for Congressional History and Education, Shepherd University’s Lifelong Learning program, the League of Women Voters of Jefferson County, the Jefferson County Branch of the NAACP, the Republican Party of Jefferson County, Democrats of Jefferson County, the Libertarian Party of West Virginia, and the Mountain Party (the WV affiliate of the U.S. Green Party) — to bring a new series to the region focusing on civic education and voting issues.

Earlier this week, Secretary of State Mac Warner spoke at Shepherd University as part of the series.

Programs like this are invaluable. After all, who will keep government in check but an informed public?

A recent survey released by University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg Public Policy Center found 35 percent of respondents were not able to identify even one branch of the federal government. A mere 36 percent could identify all three.

Why does this matter?

We think it’s essential for democracy. If we don’t understand how the system works, how can we engage in meaningful debates that help shape public opinion and hopefully policy? If we don’t know what elected officials should be doing, how do we hold them accountable?

If we don’t participate fully with our government, than how can we expect it to serve us?

The United States has long been the shining example of democracy. No one wants a self-serving government (well, certain corrupt politicians aside). But if we fail to interact with government, if we, as citizens of a great democratic republic, stop letting our voices be heard, than we have ourselves to blame.

Corrupt leaders will always exist. Some will fool us into voting for them. The only real way to fight is with awareness and participation.

Arm yourselves with facts. Understand the system. Let your voice be heard.

“We developed these events to help inform and improve civic education and to provide a place where we can discuss specific issues in a friendly, informative and nonpartisan atmosphere,” Smock said about the series.

We encourage residents here to take advantage. Civics is crucial to our democracy.

But, don’t just take our word.

“Liberty cannot be preserved without a general knowledge among the people, who have a right … and a desire to know.”— John Adams

“I know of no safe depository of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves; and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but inform their discretion.” — Thomas Jefferson

“Politics ought to be the part-time profession of every citizen who would protect the rights and privileges of free men.” — Dwight D. Eisenhower

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