Fanning the Flames: The Freedom Project Blog


Civic Disengagement in Our Democracy

By Shawn Healy
Last September, the McCormick Tribune Freedom Museum, in partnership with the Center for the Study of the American Electorate, convened a meeting of more than forty national thought leaders including bi-partisan political representatives, pundits, journalists, and scholars, to address the underlying causes of our disengaged citizenry in light of the 2008 election cycle we are now experiencing firsthand. At the conference, we addressed issues like campaign finance reform, the presidential nominating process, campaign conduct, with a specific focus on TV ads, election administration, and media coverage of the campaign. We sought common understanding amongst a disparate group to lay the groundwork for substantive changes to the process in time for the next four-year election cycle in 2012.

The deliberations of the conference and initial ideas for reform are articulated in this report that we proudly introduce for public consumption. The report is particularly pertinent in an election cycle where a frontloaded process has placed a premium on victories in early contests, effectively sealing the fate of all but four candidates by the end of January (Clinton, McCain, Obama and Romney). The quasi-national primary scheduled for next Tuesday, Feb. 5, shifts the contests in both parties to made-for-television dramas, as the retail politicking of the past is relegated to the dustbin. A study released yesterday by the University of Wisconsin shows the role that televised advertising has already played in the campaign. It comes as no surprise that the top four contenders are also the top spenders, with Clinton and Obama near parity, but Romney outspending all of his rivals combined.

The report also addresses some of the challenges of administering elections in light of the pockmarks of 2000 and 2004 in Florida and Ohio, respectively. In 2008 we have already learned of similar problems in South Carolina and Florida, with other states scrambling to find a way of securing paper backups for electronic voting machines.

Our emphasis on televised campaign coverage is also timely in light of the Hollywood writer's strike and the public's fascination with a high-stakes reality contest called the presidential campaign. Cable news ratings have gone through the roof as CNN, Fox, and CNBC present around-the-clock coverage on the ground as the campaign traverses the nation. The media's role as kingmaker is certainly worthy of intense scrutiny, and their power is particularly magnified during this compressed nomination calendar.

It goes without saying that in order to forestall general apathy amongst our citizenry the entire process must be examined and reformed in bi-partisan fashion. In a letter I wrote published in USA Today two weeks ago (Jan.17, 2008), I argued that both parties should consider the adoption of the so-called Delaware Plan, with later primaries spread across several months, and the smallest states in terms of population kicking off the process, following by successive blocs of progressively larger states. We are hopeful that this suggestion and others are carried into fruition as a result of the conference we convened, this soon-to-be widely disseminated report and the action that both inspire.


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Managing Director

McCormick Freedom Project

Shawn is responsible for overseeing and managing the operations associated with the McCormick Freedom Project. Additionally, he serves as the in house content expert and voice of museum through public speaking and original scholarship. Before joining the Freedom Project, he taught American Government, Economics, American History, and Chicago History at Community High School in West Chicago, IL and Sheboygan North High School in Wisconsin.

Shawn is a doctoral candidate within the Political Science Department at the University of Illinois at Chicago where he received his MA in Political Science. He is a 2001 James Madison Fellow from the State of Wisconsin and holds a bachelor's degree in Political Science, History, and Secondary Education from the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

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About Fanning the Flames and the McCormick Freedom Project

Fanning the Flames is a blog of the McCormick Freedom Project, which was started in 2006 by museum managing director Shawn Healy. The blog highlights the news of the day, in hopes of engaging readers in dialogue about freedom issues. Any views or opinions expressed on this blog represent those of the writers alone and do not represent an official opinion of the McCormick Freedom Project.

Founded in 2005, the McCormick Freedom Project is part of the McCormick Foundation. The Freedom Project’s mission is to enable informed and engaged participation in our democracy by demonstrating the relevance of the First Amendment and the role it plays in the ongoing struggle to define and defend freedom. The museum offers programs and resources for teachers, students, and the general public.

First Amendment journalism initiative

The Freedom Project recently launched a new reporting initiative with professional journalists Tim McNulty and Jamie Loo. The goal is to expand and promote the benefits of lifelong civic engagement among citizens of all ages, through original reporting, commentary and news aggregation on First Amendment and freedom issues. Please visit the McCormick Freedom Project's news Web site, The Post-Exchange at

Dave Anderson
Vice President of Civic Programs
McCormick Foundation

Tim McNulty
Senior Journalist
McCormick Freedom Project

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