By Diana Dawson
I was 16 when I had my first transformative political experience. It was 1967 and I had been selected as an American Field Service Student. I along with 700 other US students boarded a ship headed to Europe. On arrival we all headed to our assigned countries; (destinations known, experiences to come unknown). Five of us departed to Portugal, then ruled by the dictator Antonio Salazar.
Today, I direct the non-profit organization North Idaho Voter Services, and have daily conversations with as many people as possible about our government, our candidates, and our current issues. What I constantly hear is that confidence in our government and public officials is low—so low that many voters do not want to vote. It feels like we’re poised at the cusp of another political transformation, with some choosing flight and some choosing fight.
As a teenager in Portugal, the most challenging adjustment for me as an AFS student wasn’t the new bed, the food, or the language. Instead, it was the authoritarian rule and how it permeated the country and the family with whom I lived.
As an American born into freedom and liberty, I had no perception of censorship. I quickly learned the value of freedom of speech, forced to carefully craft anything I said in public. In my AFS family, I stifled my horror when I learned the father with whom I was staying had arranged a marriage for his oldest daughter; despite the fact she was in love with a different man. Instead of voicing my outrage, I learned to share my sorrow and tears with his daughters behind closed doors. I learned about the insidious nature of authoritarianism. I learned to channel my anger and the timing into promises for the future and the country I loved.
When I left America I was on track to become a veterinarian. When I returned my major was quickly changed to Political Science. When our ship sailed into New York, every single student was on deck to wave to the Statue of Liberty. When we stepped off the ship, we entered a world of turmoil; protests over the Vietnam war, a draft that killed many of my friends and teachers, the assassination of great men like President Kennedy, Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy. It was a tough time indeed, equally as bad then or more so than now.
Yet the sanctity of democracy, liberty, and freedom, and my desire to protect it prevailed. Many of us chose to fight for the greater good and the improvement of our country. It worked, but nothing is permanent. Once again in our country and especially here in North Idaho we are witnessing a changing political paradigm. With growing precedence, I’ve witnessed candidates and campaigns that put our traditional, conservative values and our foundation of independent thinking on the line.
Notably changes are at work including an influx of far-right individuals, supported by out-of-state dark money and extreme ideological determination. These individuals have gained control of the state’s Republican Party, becoming a super minority with the power to implicate every level of our political system. Their effects on our institutions are both immediate and long-lasting. Beginning in North Idaho, these efforts have now spread throughout the state.
In the past two years alone, school levies were defeated, respected teachers were unfairly targeted, patient/doctor relationships were disrupted, librarians faced baseless accusations, and elected officials were censured by Republican Central Committees seeking to undermine voting rights.
When seeking to identify how this super minority has come to power, the main culprit I blame is low voter turnout, especially in primaries. Since 2016, voter turnout in LD1 Idaho primary elections has averaged under 35-percent – which contributes to the election of more extreme candidates who capitalize on the fatigue and apathy of the majority.
The second culprit is the rise of disinformation and misinformation, coupled with a decline in journalism jobs. Bad information does not support the election of Qualified Candidates. When extreme candidates are elected by a minority of voters, they often represent their personal ideology above the will of the Idaho majority.
This all begs the question, “What can we do about it?” At the core of this answer lies the decision of fight or flight? Do we value our democracy? If so we must fight with our most powerful weapons– our vote and our voice. The lesson I learned at 16 is that democracy is not always fun and it is not permanent. It requires eternal vigilance. It’s a worthwhile fight.
By actively participating in the democratic process, engaging in conversations, and staying informed, we can preserve the values that have defined North Idaho. We can fix our toxic political environment, disagree without hatred, find common ground, and have real policy debates on solutions that Idaho citizens want. Through these efforts we can elect qualified candidates, protect the communities we love and protect generations to come. Please vote informed in the May 21, 2024 primary. We need qualified leaders who have courage and integrity to address our current political challenges.
Diana Dawson retired to North Idaho after selling her marketing company—joining generations of her family who have lived in the state—and founded North Idaho Voter Services in 2018. She holds degrees in political science and an MBA.