Man Without Qualities

Monday, March 04, 2002

Make the World Safe For Democracy, And Reconsider Whether to Vote

It is election time, and many people are again urging us all to vote. On the op-ed pages of newspapers and from the management of local and national broadcast outlets, apparently disinterested “good government” advocates urge all eligible voters to exercise their franchise rights. Politicians emulate at least the form of such “good government” advocacy; generally making “get out the vote” efforts that are in fact intended to get out only the vote of sympathetic constituencies. What the politicians are up to is neither straightforward nor sinister, but at least it’s easy to understand the interests behind the advocacy. What’s more curious is the agenda of the “good government” advocates. Is it better if everyone who can vote does vote – at least if the voter makes some effort to learn about the candidates and issues? The answer is likely “NO.” That appears to be especially likely for a voter who attempts to evaluate the candidates and issues on an individualized basis.

By way of example, in November 2000, Hillary Clinton wrote a simulated “good government” column addressed to young voters urging them to vote, a column fairly representative of the genre. The point here is not to embarrass Ms. Clinton, or to focus on her not entirely transparent agenda. Ms. Clinton’s column is instead chosen as an example because it is compact, well crafted and reasonably representative of both versions of the genre (that is, efforts by “good government” advocates and politicians simulating such efforts), containing only a few non-distracting points which are characteristic of her approach.

Ms. Clinton caps her column with the standard request that voters not “throw this precious privilege away.” But why not? In a related area, the First Amendment right of free expression is also precious, but we don’t normally say our fellow citizens “throw this precious privilege away” when they remain silent about matters of their choice (of course, in an extreme situation we might think otherwise). We are normally grateful to their discretion and judgment. We often say that they are being “responsible.” The extension of the right of free expression to more people doesn’t terminate the validity of the various considerations that counsel us to keep quiet about things with which others are more familiar – at least if there is no indication that such “others” have substantially opposed interests.

Ms. Clinton observed: “Why, then, are Americans turning their back on this privilege -- the cornerstone of our democracy? In 1960, 63 percent of the electorate voted. By 1996, that number had dropped to under 40 percent, leaving us to ask: What will it take to remind the American public that voting is not just a precious right, but in Lyndon Johnson's words, ‘the first duty of democracy?’” That much of the fall-off in voter participation between 1963 and 1996 was attributable to the lowering of the voting age, not “Americans turning their back on this privilege,” is typical of Ms. Clinton’s style of rhetorical slight-of-hand, but even without her implicit misrepresentation, the percentages she cites appear correct. They also appear low in comparision to some other countries, in which voter turn out can exceed eighty percent.

The first indication that Ms. Clinton is in serious intellectual trouble is her reference to Lyndon Johnson. When a writer as sophisticated as Ms. Clinton believes that she must find her support for a “duty” to vote in the words of Lyndon Johnson – who was not regarded as a man who spoke frankly (although he was often rude) or as a deep thinker (although he was often wily), one has to ask whether she could have done better. Surely there are quotes from Jefferson and other great American political thinkers supporting the existence of such a duty? In fact, none of the great early American political thinkers appears to have strongly expressed the sentiment that voting is normally a duty of every individual – moral or otherwise. Some of their writings do show conviction that every voter “is a trustee as well for others as himself and that every measure he supports has an important bearing on the interests of others as well as on his own,” as Daniel Webster put it. Similarly, Samuel Adams also thought that one should not just vote one’s own interest, because a voter “is executing one of the most solemn trusts in human society for which he is accountable to God and his country.” Such references to the “trust” which a voter is executing suggest belief in a voter’s obligation to others, an obligation perhaps extending to an obligation to vote in the first place. But this seems to stretch the meaning of the “obligation” here: what Adams and Webster seem to be saying is that the obligation of “public trust” arises if the vote is cast, not that there is a moral duty to cast a vote in the first place.

So Ms. Clinton’s did seem to need to rely on later, less august authority. But, Lyndon Johnson? A man generally regarded as a highly divisive figure? And this in what was supposed to be her “non-partisan” column?

According to Ms. Clinton, the major factors discouraging at least young voters are that such voters “feel ignored by politicians; they feel their vote doesn't really count; and they say that they don't get the kind of information they need to make an informed decision.” She does not answer any of these concerns. There is not even a pretense at addressing the first concern, that voters “feel ignored by politicians.” The second concern is addressed simply:

“If you are skeptical about whether your vote can make a difference, think about this: If indeed you care about education and jobs; if you care about the Supreme Court and individual rights; if you care about hate crimes, the military and foreign policy; if you care about health care and welfare reform, or paying down the national debt; if you care about global warming and protecting the environment, you owe it to yourself and your country to vote.”

But if a “vote doesn’t really count,” then a vote won’t mean anything in the resolution of any of these issues – so there is nothing here to answer the second concern. Similarly, her response to voters’ concern “that they don't get the kind of information they need to make an informed decision” is to suggest: “If you'd like to use the Internet to learn more about the candidates and issues, you can start here:;;;;” Ms. Clinton does not say that using the Internet will address this third concern – she just suggests a few web sites to start with IF you want to use the Internet. But these suggested web sites just provide general information which looks like it came from wire services, and can be obtained from any number of previously and publicly available sources. That is to say, these web sites just provide more information which voters do not think is “the kind of information they need to make an informed decision.”

Yes, Ms. Clinton does not meaningfully address a single one of the three factors her own column selects as the most important suppressors of voting. This is typical of such speeches and editorials. Why?

Perhaps sweeping “good government” screeds do not persuasively argue that every eligible voter should vote because this is clearly not true. The most obvious cases are those in which the voter is ignorant. If a candidate is just a name on the ballot to a particular voter, the voter probably should not vote in that race. This is equally true where the voter knows nothing about a direct initiative that appears for approval on the ballot. Especially as government has grown more complex, it has become more difficult for any voter to obtain and analyze relevant information. For example, recall the extent to which Ms. Clinton went to conceal her agenda and methods when she convened her "national health care task force" in the early days of her husband's first term. It is sometimes said elected bodies (such as the European Parliament) can develop a legitimacy problem due to low voter awareness and turnout, as Kirsty Hughes asserts in her article Is This Europe's Philadelphia? Wall Street Journal, February 28, 2002. But all government must be democratic, and where it reaches a size and complexity that outstrips the inability of the electorate to follow what’s going on, there SHOULD be a legitimacy problem, simply because democratic oversight IS lacking. Pretending that the problem doesn’t exist by asking voters to participate “in the dark” just makes a sham of the process.

Nor will it do to assert that individuals have the obligation to educate themselves sufficiently. The “ignorant voter” problem goes much further than voters who have not bothered to read the papers. It is just not the case that everyone is capable of acquiring and assimilating politically relevant information, even where government is simple and small – but especially where it is large and complex. Indeed, once a voter’s ability to acquire and assimilate such information drops below a certain point with respect to professional political operatives, any participation by the voter is more likely to result in votes that are determined by manipulations of such professionals and against the voter’s interests. Voting simply does not make sense if the net likelihood of voting is against one’s own interests (or the interests of the voter and whatever other group of people the voter owes a “trust”). It is obviously not possible for every eligible voter to absorb and understand enough information to effectively police elected politicians once government assumes remote, complex form.

The whole “good government” approach that advocates that everyone should vote needs to deal with another model: Why isn’t it better for many or most people NOT to vote in many or most cases, and to leave the decisions to other people who care more and are better at evaluating and acting on politically relevant information? To some extent, the truth of such a model is unavoidable. Children, for example, are not eligible to vote in large measure exactly because they are thought not to be capable of assimilating and applying political information. Children have many other rights - Constitutional rights of criminal procedure, for example. How can their exclusion from the franchise be justified, especially in the not-infrequent cases where the children are taxpayers. Wasn't the Revolution fought over the principle of "No taxation without representation?" Other groups are also excluded from the franchise.

The concept of “virtual representation” – under which one group (for example, children) are seen to be "represented" on the ground that they share the same interests as others (in the case of children, the adults around them) who do have the right to vote – is essential in filling the democratic gap. The concept of “virtual representation” is sometimes discussed in this country as if it had been discredited by the Revolution. But that is clearly wrong, as the above example indicates. It is true that the colonies' thought it was impossible to consider themselves represented in Parliament unless they actually elected members to the House of Commons, an approach in conflict with the principle of "virtual representation," which in this case was taken to mean that the rest of the community was "represented" on the ground that all inhabitants shared the same interests as the property owners who elected members of Parliament.

Post-Revolutionary America retained many restrictions on the franchise on the basis of the “virtual representation” theory, including exclusion of non-property owners and women who were property owners (of course, slaves were also excluded, but on different grounds). Assurances of virtual representation failed to assuage the anger of nineteenth century women just as it had the colonials. Exclusion of male property owners sometimes led to violence, including a full scale revolution in Rhode Island in the 1840's.

But expansion of the franchise does not end the validity of “virtual representation” considerations, any more than the expansion of the right to free expression ended the validity of considerations which lead many people not to engage in political speech. The expansion of the franchise just recognizes that the evaluation of when to apply such “virtual representation” considerations are for the eligible individual to determine with respect to his or her own vote. In short, if there is any moral obligation or civic duty to vote, then there must sometimes also be a moral obligation and civic duty not to vote.

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