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CHAPTER 13 How the People Form Their Opinions Before Voting
"Only enlightened public opinion, based on accurate information and full and free discussion of facts and issues, can give to our Nation real and adequate security."
In our last chapter we discussed how the people can make known their wishes by voting. However, the voter does not do his whole duty as a citizen by voting for the candidates offered to him by the political parties. Every citizen should keep himself well informed so that he can help in the choice of able and honest representatives. He should keep up his interest in public officials after they are elected so that he will know whether they are worthy of holding office and of being reelected. Let us consider for a few moments how the voter forms his opinions about his government and its officials.
VOTERS SHOULD HAVE AS MUCH INFORMATION AS POSSIBLE
The United States is a democracy in which the wishes of the people must guide the government in deciding how it will act. Every voter should know what the government is doing for him and his community. If a large number of our voters are ignorant or indifferent, our democracy will be a failure. If our voters are well informed and vote with good common sense, our Government will serve the people well.
More and more as years go by, we expect our Government to help us with our hardest problems. Therefore we should always keep trying to elect able and wide-awake representatives. After the elections are over and the officials are in office, the people should be interested in watching how their representatives are doing their work. Are the legislators making laws which are really needed? Are other officials really enforcing the laws? Are all criminals who violate the laws being brought to trial and punished ? Are the needs of the people getting the attention which they deserve? These and many other questions should be of interest to our citizens.
HOW CAN THE VOTER KEEP HIMSELF WELL INFORMED?
All voters should be alert and independent enough to read and think for themselves. The problems of government are changing all the time, and we are constantly being asked to vote for new candidates and, indirectly, for or against new plans which groups of citizens tell us will be helpful to our community or to the whole people. How can we figure out wisely what candidates have the right answers, as far as the welfare of our groups or of the United States is concerned ?
Much of our information must come from newspapers, magazines, and the radio. It is a wise thing for all of us to keep up our reading about public questions and government affairs and to listen to all sorts of conversations, lectures, and radio talks. A great many writers and lecturers are friendly and patriotic and really want to help us, even though some of them are trying to make us think as they do, instead of just giving us information that will guide us in thinking for ourselves. Some of the advice which we receive we recognize right away as being for our own good and for the good of our neighbors, as, for example, when a police radio broadcast explains to us why we should obey the traffic rules.
HEARING BOTH SIDES
But we often recognize other information as coming from persons who wish only to help themselves along by getting us to support their selfish plans. We read many articles which we immediately know are intended to make us dislike certain officials or groups of officials, while other articles are intended to “build up” some new candidate who is not really worthy of our support. We would be very foolish to believe all we read or hear, especially when the writer or speaker is trying to persuade us to think what he thinks, instead of giving us both sides of the question for our thoughtful consideration. We should always try to hear, discuss, and read “the other side of the story' before we form our opinions. We should read newspapers and listen to radio speeches on both sides, and then compare the information we have thus received with the facts which we know already and with our own experience. The most important thing is to hear both sides and to measure their arguments by what we have actually learned in our own lives.
We can get much information in our homes and in the other groups to which we belong. We must never think of education as something which ends when we reach the age of leaving school but must always remember that our education continues throughout our lives—in our homes, in our religious groups, in our work groups, in discussion groups, and in many of our other contacts. In our homes, for instance, we often find members of the family helping to educate each other without thinking much about it. When they come home from work, they often discuss the different opinions and arguments which they have heard or in which they have taken part during the day. By their discussions they help to explain more than one side of a question. Often they talk about good books which they have read and encourage other members of the family to read them too.
Everywhere in our country there are small and large groups of people who assemble to discuss questions. They are using their constitutional right to assemble peaceably and to speak freely. Sometimes a social group will discuss public questions of importance when it meets at a neighbor's house for dinner-usually local questions of life and work in its own community. Sometimes a group of farmers gets together to talk about the problems of the farm. Sometimes groups of housewives gather to talk about problems of the home and children and the price of household supplies. In all these groups people are talking, listening, reading, exchanging information, and forming opinions.
Some of our groups are more formal than others. The discussion groups which we have just described are very informal and are found wherever a few people get together to talk things over. But throughout this country there are groups that do not simply meet at a dinner or a luncheon or around a fire in the evening. They are organized into formal units, meet together regularly at agreed times and places, and have programs of lectures and discussions to help their members make up their minds about public questions. It is said that in New York City alone there are about 10,000 such groups.
Many times these formal groups give their members spoken or written information that tells only one side of the story. Such information is worth having only if we learn the other side of the story as well.
Look at Figure 33, which shows in picture form some of the influences often exerted on a citizen as he tries to form an honest opinion on a government question. This may suggest to you that you are going to have a very interesting time in making your preparations to vote sensibly. You will find this true. Making up your own mind independently about public questions is one of the greatest privileges of a democracy.
NEED OF INDEPENDENT MIND
On the other hand, you must remember that
1. The newspapers often disagree about men and policies.
2. Books may be written on both sides of any question.
3. Magazines very often publish articles which contradict one another.
4. Each political party must stake its success on its own point of view.