Engaging the Public: How Government and the Media Can Reinvigorate American Democracy

Article excerpt

Engaging the Public: How Government and the Media Can Reinvigorate American Democracy. Thomas J. Johnson, Carol E. Hays, and Scott P. Hays, eds. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 1998. 296 pp. $65 hbk; $22.95 pbk.

This is an ambitious collection of seventeen essays that tackles the enduring problem of low voter participation in American elections. Taking an interdisciplinary approach, the editors draw upon a mix of political science and mass media scholars to examine the problem and recommend solutions.

The first section looks at the voters, the second part considers the media, and the final grouping of essays examines election reforms. Surprising conclusions appear in each section, questioning the nation's conventional wisdom about a number of issues. Among the revelations: The disaffected voter problem encompasses complexities that go far beyond the simplified media images of angry white males, worried soccer moms, disengaged "Genxers," and a mass of dissatisfied voters ready to overthrow the American government. For example, women and men are equally alienated from government, and their different postures arise from long-standing gender differences about expectations of government, according to research in Chapter 2 by Barbara L. Poole and Melinda A. Mueller of Eastern Illinois University's political science department.

Challenged are the commonly accepted views that new technologies and talk radio cause disengaged citizens, negative campaign ads drive citizens away from the voting booths, and the nation's recently enacted "motor-voter" legislation draws significant numbers of ethnic and low-income citizens to vote for Democratic Party candidates.

The essays' collective findings and conclusions result in a summary of suggested reforms, few of which are surprising: increase opportunities for public discourse; expand civics education; adopt civic journalism's restructuring of media coverage; encourage reliance on new media, including the Internet and talk radio; reduce barriers to registration and voting; and reform the structure, financing, conduct, and press coverage of campaigns. …