Larry Sabato: Getting People Involved in Politics

September 26, 2008 — Larry Sabato freely admits it: he's a political provocateur.

But unlike those whose goal is simply to provoke dismay, Sabato's central passion is to encourage people to engage thoughtfully and energetically in politics — to learn about the candidates and the issues, to participate in political campaigns, to serve on advisory boards and commissions, or even to run for public office. At the same time, he is not content with politics as they are practiced today, and is determined to improve them.

"Academics are supposed to stir the pot," he said. "We should propose reform and change, causing people to think about the system in new ways."

It is this passionate commitment — founded in the belief that in a democratic system politics is not a necessary evil but an essential good — that has led Sabato to undertake a vast range of activities. He has written almost two dozen books and countless essays over the past 30 years, made hundreds of media appearances annually, and served on a series of national and state commissions.

The Robert Kent Gooch Professor of Politics at the University of Virginia, Sabato has used his political contacts to increase the immediacy and impact of his course, "An Introduction to American Politics," in the process making it one of the most popular classes on Grounds. Former presidents Reagan, Ford, and Carter have all addressed the class, as has an array of governors, senators, members of Congress and other public officials. During the 2008 primary campaign, Sabato hosted Senator Hillary Clinton.

In addition, Sabato founded and directs U.Va.'s Center for Politics, which organizes a number of programs aimed at increasing political education and participation, including the Youth Leadership Initiative. That program provides free lesson plans and activities for schools and enlists tens of thousands of teachers and more than 2 million students to participate in the world's largest Internet mock election.

Anchoring this constant round of activity is a vast detailed knowledge of the political system, which Sabato updates daily. Sabato functions as an immense filter for information, spending six or seven hours each day sifting through books, dozens of newspapers and hundreds of e-mails. He treats each conversation, with people inside and outside politics, as an opportunity to tap the insight they bring to contemporary affairs.

This information gathering sets the stage for Sabato's research. "As a researcher, my goal is to understand current practices, to view them in light of history, and to explore alternatives," he said. "Every so often, I come upon an idea that I think I can live with long enough to make it the subject of a book."

Sabato's most recent idea is captured in "A More Perfect Constitution," a book in which he makes the argument that crucial revisions to the U.S. Constitution are essential to restore equity for ordinary citizens and to clear away the stagnation that discourages participation.

Sabato notes that the original framers — Jefferson, Madison, Mason, Washington and others — fully expected that the Constitution would, and should, be regularly revised to reflect the country's changing needs. With the exception of the Bill of Rights, the Constitution has been amended just 17 times in 220 years, and many of these amendments have been relatively inconsequential.

In "A More Perfect Constitution," Sabato lays out a plan to bring the Constitution into the 21st century. He proposes 23 amendments that address such issues as the structure of Congress, the length of the president's term and that of Supreme Court justices, and the role of the Electoral College.

For instance, he calls for a national lottery at the beginning of each presidential election year that would set the dates for four regional primaries in April, May, June and July, with political conventions scheduled for August.

"My goal in proposing this idea is to eliminate the multiyear presidential campaign, restoring a more productive balance between politics and governing," he said.

Certainly after this last grueling primary campaign it is an idea worth consideration.

— By Charlie Feigenoff

This article originally appeared in Explorations online.