Hurricane Katrina: Lessons for a Participatory Democracy


When a national emergency strikes, we can depend on our country to come together and display unparalleled generosity and thoughtfulness. We watch as stories of personal triumphs mix with unimaginable tragedies. Those whose lives have been forever altered turn to friends, communities, congregations and the nation as a whole for help; and those who have been spared search for ways to alleviate the pain of their fellow Americans.

In the middle of this tragedy, generosity and eventual triumph, we see an articulation of what it truly means to be an American. As a society that embraces individuality, it can often seem that little binds us together as a collective group. But last week’s events, like those of September 11, 2001, showed that we do share a cultural bond, one that helps us to collectively rise amidst tragedy. The tie that binds Americans as a collective group is our fundamental commitment to and belief in the principles of democracy.

With a representative democracy such as ours comes an expectation that our elected leaders will respond to help us in times of need; and when our representatives do not live up to our expectation, we raise our voices to be heard. Politics plays a vital role in emergency situations–Hurricane Katrina has demonstrated that politics can be the impetus that promotes responsive political action, indeed, in this instance, it was a driving force that stirred bureaucracies into action.

Of course, we have all seen that politics and government cannot be the sole hero of the Gulf Coast. Each of us must do what we can to support our affected neighbors. Whether you make a donation to the relief agencies, or you donate your time and effort, we salute you. On behalf of the Center for Politics, Center director Larry Sabato has made multiple donations to different relief agencies. Staff members have individually made donations and we are collecting furniture and household goods for displaced hurricane evacuees arriving in Charlottesville. We encourage you to also do what you are able.

Over the coming weeks and months as we commit our resources and time to the hurricane relief efforts, let us also recommit ourselves to actively participating in all that a democracy has to offer. As we at the Center have always advocated, our American democracy is more vibrant if we understand the issues and vote. However, as important as voting is, there are many other opportunities to actively influence the civic affairs of this nation. As we have seen over the last tragic weeks, our government is more responsive when citizens participate, and it is more responsive when we communicate with our elected officials and ask questions about the decisions being made at the federal, state and local levels of government.

If as a nation, we are able to sustain and build upon the level of civic and political engagement seen over the last several days, perhaps in a future emergency we will see an even healthier representative democracy in action. Our democracy will be even healthier, our resolve to assist our fellow Americans will be made even stronger, and a sluggish bureaucracy will be on notice that ultimately it answers to the true owners of the government–the American people.