Civility and responsibility are key to democracy

The local political campaign season has begun.

The elections, of course, are half a year away but the rhetoric has started.

We knew the season was upon us when we got a letter last week from Mark Grimm, a Guilderland Republican, announcing he would run for town supervisor.

He lobbed a few shots in his opening salvo, referring to “career politicians, hidden agendas, and plenty of waste.”

The sitting supervisor, Kenneth Runion, responded with a few of his own: “He did not come in with one proposal that would have made Guilderland a better place to live,” said Runion of Grimm’s term on the town board. “All he had were criticisms.”

The good news here is there will be a contest; voters will have a choice. Guilderland’s Republican Party chairman says his committee hasn’t yet decided who the GOP will back, but someone will be in the running.

A choice is good for citizens. Both parties — and a third candidate if Grimm doesn’t get the GOP nod — are forced to take stands on issues and to make their views known to the public.

(We were disappointed that no one petitioned to run for the Voorheesville Public Library’s board of trustees in the May 21 election — the citizens lose.)

We would advise the Guilderland candidates, whoever they are — Runion said he’s not sure if he’ll run for an eighth term — to stick to the issues. Sniping at an opponent doesn’t further meaningful discourse; this is true for any campaign, not just in Guilderland. Outlining ways to tackle the slew of problems now facing municipal governments is the way to further democracy.

The lead entry in our Back In Time column this week, written 100 years ago, looks at “The Making of Words: The Curious Origin of Some of Our Most Common Expressions.” For example, the Bethlehem Hospital for Lunatics, in London, came to be telescoped into “bedlam.”

Today, of course, we use the word 

to mean a place of noisy confusion, an uproar; knowing bedlam’s derivation enriches its meaning.

Similarly, we can look at the derivation of the words that form “election campaign.” “Election” comes from the Latin eligere, which means to pick out or select.

“Campaign” comes from the Latin campus for “a field.” Its derivation is from the military: Armies would be quartered in the winter and took to the open field for battle in the summer. In the early 1800s, in America, the term was applied to politics.

So, we can see that politicians go to battle, giving voters a choice. We know the field of battle can get muddy. But slinging mud does not help voters decide wisely.

Warfare has changed over the centuries, from when the term was coined. We urge those in current campaigns to eschew the drone approach. Dropping bombs — like the unsigned campaign literature or anonymous robo calls that have permeated recent local elections — is not honorable. 

Stand out in the open field where you can be seen and make your views known.

We can look, too, at the word “politics.” It comes from the Greek word, politika meaning “of, for, or relating to citizens.” Aristotle named his book on governing that, which was translated to English in the mid 15th-Century as the Latinized Polettiques.

Long ago, the English term “politician” took on unpleasant overtones.

In the middle of the 18th Century, Samuel Johnson spent a decade writing a dictionary of the English language that vividly captured the way words were used — like bugs caught in amber. The inimitable Dr. Johnson described a politician as “A man of artifice; one of deep contrivance.”

Today’s politicians would be wise to keep the root of the word in mind — of, for, or relating to citizens — as they make a run for office.

Aristotle classified states into aristocracies, oligarchies, monarchies, timocracies, tyrannies, and democracies. “Democracy,” of course comes from the Greek demos, meaning “people,” and kratos, meaning “rule.”

And so we have a country that was set up to be ruled by the people. We, in the United States, have come a long way from Aristotle’s Athens. His demokratia was meant to be distinct from the aristocratie, or rule of the elite, but it was only the elite class of free men — not the slaves, not the women — who could participate in Athens’ governance.

So, as we search for derivations to better define ourselves, we must admonish not only the politicians but the citizens as well. You don’t have to wait until November to exercise your rights. Build up some muscle now.

A Civil War was fought in this country to clear the way for once enslaved men to vote. And later waves of women pushed long and hard to win the right to be participating members of the democracy.

Use those hard-won rights this month — May 21 — to cast your vote in school and library board elections and on budgets for those institutions. We deserve nothing more than bedlam if we choose to ignore our duty as citizens of a democracy.

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