Panelists discussed challenges to democracy at a SUNY Fredonia event, “Democracy Under Attack,” last week in the Williams Center.
The first panelist was Kerry Fischer, an assistant professor at the school. She discussed the intersection between sports and politics — and described how athletes are under pressure to “stay out of politics.”
She noted how LeBron James was attacked by Laura Ingraham on Fox News for his political comments in a 2018 interview.
“Her feeling was, ‘You’re an athlete, you’re making millions of dollars, your job is to do nothing but play basketball.’ … It went viral because it was all over social media, the ‘Shut up and dribble’ thing.
“It actually worked in his favor because by her having a problem with that, she’s raising awareness… His social media following is tens of millions of people. Why wouldn’t you use that platform?”
Fischer discussed the Colin Kaepernick situation.
“It’s bringing light to the fact that we’re still dealing with all of these things and it’s being emphasized in athletics,” she said.
There are good things to politics and sports intersecting, she said. She noted the NBA shut down on Election Day, and NFL stadiums host polling sites, as ways to enhance participation in the democratic process.
Fischer said athletes can effect change because of their large social media followings. “Why shouldn’t they be out there using that influence to truly effect change in this country?” she concluded.
The next panelist was Raymond Rushboldt, a SUNY Fredonia senior lecturer. His talk was titled “Prospects for Democracy.”
“The United States has not necessarily always been consistent in its promotion of democracy around the world,” he said. He recalled that it was popular in the ’90s to talk about “the end of history,” where democratic principles and free markets would conquer the whole world.
“What we found, some parts of the world of the world did not necessarily buy into our consensus,” he said. “There was never a time where every country was on board with these ideas of democratic principles.”
The Sept. 11 attacks and the 2008 economic crisis led to populist attacks on democracy and globalization, Rushboldt said. “The people who look like me felt that they were not being addressed as much… there is a perception that we are going overboard in a direction towards people who are members of groups that were previously disadvantaged.”
He called it “nostalgia politics” — a belief that the past was somehow better. “Getting people to vote for you based on the fact that we somehow want to go backwards in time. That’s really impossible to do.”
He added, “Sometimes people believe their government, their elites, are not listening to them, and so we need someone to speak for us. And who is going to do this? A loud voice. … the policies can be off in another direction but the perception is that someone is saying things that ‘in the back of my mind, I’m thinking.”
Rushboldt referred to the “elite” as more than just rich people. “I’m also talking about people who have higher levels of education and a more global point of view — people say, ‘They’re kind of an elite as well and they’re not speaking my language.’”
He concluded that the biggest threat to democracy is probably apathy.
The last speaker was Michael Williams, a junior political science major who is treasurer of the campus Democrats’ organization.
He criticized the U.S. electoral system as a “first past the post” arrangement where the winner takes all, usually in electoral districts “gerrymandered” to improve one party’s prospects. Proportional representation would be a better system, he said.
As it stands now, ‘basically if you have a different idea on a different topic, it’s really hard to actually speak to someone about that issue,” Williams said. Third parties find it almost impossible to work in such a situation, he asserted.
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“A proportional system recognizes that every person no matter where you live has an equal one to one vote, something that we don’t have in this country,” he said. He said this can lead to a “strategic voting” situation, where people don’t necessarily vote for candidates they like, but instead vote against candidates they dislike.
Williams said another peril of such a system is the same one Rushboldt referred to: Voter apathy.
“Say if you’re a Republican and live in a Democratic majority county. You probably won’t go out to vote because you know all your representatives will be Democratic no more what, meaning that you’re going to be more apathetic towards the system,” he said.