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April 4, 2014

Don't blame voters for low turnout

Suppose nobody votes this year. On Nov. 4 the doors to the polling places are thrown open, and there isn't anyone in line. No absentee ballots are filed. No one litigates, charging either fraud or discrimination, because there weren't any voters.

It won't happen. But if it did, pundits and activists would surely blame public apathy for such a catastrophe. I'd name a different culprit: the major parties, their candidates and their acolytes in the news media.

 Lately I've been poring over fundraising emails from Republicans and Democrats alike. "It's time to stand up to MSNBC, the liberal media and their attacks," thunders the campaign of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, whose troubles are evidently the fault of those reporting them. Meanwhile, Democrats can hardly write an email these days without announcing that the "Koch brothers" - all Charles and David are ever called - are "pouring money into" some congressional district or Senate race. The incantation "Koch," which I'd wager millions of voters are unsure how to pronounce, apparently works fundraising magic.

The Democrats warn their base that Mitch McConnell can't be allowed to become majority leader of the Senate. The Republicans caution that Nancy Pelosi can't be allowed to become speaker of the House. And of course there is plenty of irrelevant celebrity-bashing along the way. (Irrelevant, that is, unless either Glenn Beck or Bill Maher is running for office this year.)

My father would have been appalled.

Dad was a well-connected and highly partisan Democrat, involved at high levels in several presidential campaigns from the 1960s onward. But he liked to say that it is possible for your own side to be right on the issues, yet not deserve to win. In particular, he used to say, a candidate whose main strategy was to talk about how rotten the other side was wasn't worth a vote.

Reading the sludge today's campaigns generate, I wonder whether he might have been right.

Voter turnout is widely viewed as declining - evidently, all over the democratic world. True, there are dissenters who say that the supposedly rising indifference of the American voter is an artifact of poor measurement - but, whatever the numbers, they aren't as high as they were in my youth. A lot of observers believe that the nature of campaigns has a lot to do with the problem.

I'm not arguing that people shouldn't vote. I'm saying those who choose not to might have perfectly sensible reasons.

Perhaps the best known academic exponent of the case against voting is the economist Gordon Tullock, one of the founders of public choice theory, who likes to point out that your chances of dying in a car accident on the way to the polling place are greater than the chances that your vote will influence the outcome.

Then there is the late political scientist Murray Edelman. In his 1988 book "Constructing the Political Spectacle," Edelman defended citizens who are indifferent to electoral politics: "That indifference, which academic political science notices but treats as an obstacle to enlightenment or democracy, is, from another perspective, a refuge against the kind of engagement that would, if it could, keep everyone's energies taken up with activism: election campaigns, lobbying, repressing some and liberating others, wars, and all other political activities that displace living, loving, and creative work."

This isn't the same as saying that there are no distinctions between the parties; Edelman's point was that one can rationally and even admirably choose to spend one's energies on something other than electoral politics. His central critique of politics is that it tends to be about symbols more than reality (in earlier work he'd coined the term "symbolic reassurance" to refer to the celebrations when our candidates win), and that part of the symbolism is for each party to construct an enemy who is "evil, immoral, warped, or pathological."

The historian Richard Hofstadter had something similar in mind in his 1964 essay "The Paranoid Style in American Politics." The approach he criticized as inimical to democracy was marked by a certainty in the other side's wickedness that was so great that "what is felt to be needed to defeat it is not the usual methods of political give-and-take, but an all-out- crusade."

Hofstadter would have found evidence for his thesis in the emails and talk show screeds that have become so common - and so shrill. He cautioned against the growing appeal of an advocate of a particular sort: "He is always manning the barricades of civilization. He constantly lives at a turning point: it is now or never in organizing resistance to conspiracy. Time is forever just running out."

My father always insisted that political campaigns should be about ideas. He derided slogans and appeals to emotion as the accouterments of a reactionary politics. (We were never allowed to have bumper stickers on the family car.) There were simply things you didn't do to win: The willingness to lose nobly was, for Dad, a vital principle of a truly democratic politics.

Nowadays, when I make this point to liberal friends, they always counter with the claim that the Republicans did it first. Maybe that's true; but in the partisan yet thoughtful Democratic household of my youth, Republican use of a tactic wasn't a justification. It was an insult.

I am not saying there are no good reasons to vote, even when you are genuinely indifferent or when you believe that both parties are behaving monstrously. There are plenty of reasonable arguments for holding your nose and casting a ballot anyway. I will be taking them up in future columns.

 

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