Let’s take a minute. Let’s take a breath.
I’m willing to wager that when the current members of the Vermillion School Board and the Vermillion City Council decided to become candidates and offer up for a bit of public service, they had little forewarning of what was coming in March.
Some of us may be unhappy with one or more of their decisions. But here’s a lesson from Junior Achievement, the nonprofit organization that delivers civics instruction modules to schoolchildren: In a representative democracy, the individual citizen doesn’t get everything he or she wants most of the time.
That might seem like a startling assertion. But the 4th graders I used to teach as a volunteer for Junior Achievement were introduced to the idea in one of the lessons. In it, a hypothetical situation in a small-town community like ours is presented. There’s an empty storefront with three potential tenants: a candy store, a coin-op game arcade (kind of an outdated idea in 2020, granted), and an animal shelter.
The pupils are encouraged to identify good points and bad points concerning each possible tenant. Even in the fourth grade, pupils are remarkably adept at this – they invariably point out issues such as smells associated with an animal shelter, the noise of an arcade, and the negative dental impacts of introducing more candy into children’s mouths.
They’re just as quick to point out positives for each tenant – care for mistreated animals; shared spaces where children can gather and socialize.
After identifying both the positives and negatives associated with each of the three choices, the students vote.
In the ten years I taught this lesson, I observed no consistent outcome. Sometimes, the candy store wins. Sometimes, the video arcade receives the most votes. But most of the time, the animal shelter comes out on top.
Fourth graders are capable of remarkably mature, selfless decision-making.
Now, mind you, that was an exercise in direct democracy. It was like a referendum or initiative in our state. The more common form of decision-making at the ballot box follows the representative format, where we vote not for issues per se, but for individual candidates who will apply their judgment and values to governing on our behalf.
Here’s the teachable moment that arose each time I taught that lesson for Junior Achievement: There were always students who had voted for the losing tenants. Sometimes, the winning tenant (since there were three choices) received a mere plurality.
Thus, there were always a significant number of students sulking at their desks with frowns. Their choice had lost. And yet, they had participated. They had thought about the issues. They had registered their vote. They had done their part.
That’s the nature of a democratic process. You have to participate – and often be disappointed, yet still willingly abide by the outcome – as others would, had your preference ended up winning.
Now, our city council and our school board are staffed with dedicated civic-minded individuals from our community. We selected them. And now they’re making difficult decisions about businesses, our schools, and the way we live our lives during a pandemic. Don’t expect to agree with all their decisions. That’s not how it works.
A fourth grader could tell you.
In World War II and other conflicts, military leaders had to make life and death decisions about soldiers in battle. Today, it’s local government leaders who are tasked with making those kinds of decisions in towns and school districts, big and small, across the country.
Let’s collectively take a breath – and thank them for their service.
Thomas E. Simmons is a professor of law at the University of South Dakota Knudson School of Law. His views and opinions are his own and not those of the University of South Dakota, its Knudson School of Law, or the Board of Regents.