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Friday, March 17, 2006 - Page updated at 11:38 AM


Ryan Blethen / Times editorial columnist

Creating a new democracy

The tethers of our democracy are visibly frayed. Eroding forces abound from the falsehoods used to justify war in Iraq and government spying on Americans, to voters so rabid they cannot hear divergent opinion, or worse, are woefully detached. The press has become so beholden to profit it struggles to play the watchdog role needed for democracy to flourish.

Luckily, not everybody is sedated by the constant numbing glow of American culture. I was reminded of this last week by a class of college students and again this week by a report from a Seattle group focused on 20- and 30-somethings, an age group to which I belong.

The finale for the 92 students enrolled in American Press and Politics at the University of Washington was titled the Metamorphosis Conference. The students were broken into groups and asked a question that dealt with the press and democracy.

To read the Seattle Works and 18to35 report

The students impressed me. They were clearly passionate about democracy and their place in the system. They spoke of the importance of an independent press, of being informed, of how technology could help inform more people, especially their generation.

Dr. Taso Lagos, the architect of the conference, became emotional talking about his students during an interview. His goal for the class was not to instill a particular political belief in the students, but to make sure they are empowered to make choices in our democracy. Lagos knows well what happens when choice and voice are taken away by government. His family fled Greece in 1967 after a military junta.

Lagos says democracy is at a "crossroads." It can either wither or adapt to a modern world filled with more choices than ever before.

"We are so comfortable with what we have it just seems that democracy is too much of a bother," Lagos said. "The question is what kind of choices are we going to make."

The message was not lost on his students. Linda Tomko entered the class pessimistic about democracy, but left with a new democratic energy. The soft-spoken Tomko said the problem with politics is that issues important to her generation, such as gay marriage and education, are defined by sound bites.

"If you can make the issues more relevant to younger voters, they will get involved," Tomko said.

Tomko's message can be found in a report released Wednesday by Seattle Works, a community-service organization for people in their 20s and 30s, and 18to35, a nonpartisan national policy research center. The report found that there is a disconnect between 20- and 30-somethings and politicians. Gasp!

The report goes deeper than the expected generational divide. It states that this age group in the Seattle area is eager to be a part of the political discussion, but feels that the system is corrupt and lacks transparency.

Alison Carl White, Seattle Works executive director, said that the younger generations must get involved now.

"We're not likely to be asked to come to the table, we need to engage proactively with the issues we care about," said the 33-year-old.

The rot of democracy is well advanced. Lobbyists multiply like rabbits, leaving the field of politics brown, dead, bent to their voracious appetite. Consolidation of the press and destructive partisan politics feed voter apathy.

The task of stabilizing and creating a new democracy will fall to the waves of fluid voters and future leaders behind the baby boomers.

It is yet to be decided how this happens and whether we will stumble into the same power traps as current elected officials.

Lagos' students talk about the importance of the Internet and blogs to reach young voters and as a way for the young to extend their reach across the years. Carl White talks about the importance of community involvement.

A tech-savvy, engaged political bloc would be hard to ignore. It is not too late for us to make the right choices — choices that mold a modern democracy and sustain it another 229 years.

Ryan Blethen's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. His e-mail address is

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