Once again, more
citizens will stay home than go to the polls
By Joel Bleifuss
In his State of the Union address, President Clinton reminded Americans of their good fortune in being "alive at this moment in history" when "we have so much prosperity and social progress with so little internal crisis or so few external threats." But all of his hyperbolic hoopla can't mask the fact that the upcoming presidential election will show us once again that this is a democracy of the few, by the few and for the few.
In every presidential election since 1960, the percentage of eligible voters who go to the polls has decreased (with two exceptions: 1984, when Reagan ran for re-election, and 1992, when Ross Perot energized the apathetic). The 1996 Clinton-Dole race was the first presidential election since 1924 (when women were first allowed to vote) where less than 50 percent of eligible voters cast ballots. In November, it's a sure bet that once again, more citizens will decide to stay at home than go vote.
This doesn't bode well for democracy. Last year Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government established the Vanishing Voter Project to come up with ways to invigorate the American electoral process. Tom Patterson, the project's director, divides the 50 percent or so of the population that doesn't vote into three groups. The chronically apathetic account for about half of nonvoters (roughly one-quarter of the voting population). Their ranks, full of those who have no interest in politics, have remained steady over time. As Patterson sees it, this group will never engage in political life: "They never got the religion and are never going to get it."
The second block of people who don't vote are those alienated from the current political scene. Patterson puts their number at roughly one-quarter of the nonvoting population (about one-eighth of the voting population). They have an interest in civic affairs and a sense of citizenship but are disgusted by political scandals and the growing role of money in elections. Patterson says these citizens could be re-engaged "if you put the political ship back in order."
The third and fastest growing group of nonvoters is apolitical young people. According to Federal Election Commission statistics, only 32 percent of those aged 18 to 24 voted in 1996, compared to 71 percent of those aged 55 to 70. Though young people historically vote at a lower rate than their elders, the number of nonvoting youth is now at a record level. In 1972, for example, 50 percent of 18-to-24-olds cast ballots.
Patterson believes that young people have been disconnected from politics by changes in the media landscape. Due to the advent of cable TV and the Internet, younger voters' political interests have not been nurtured by regular reading of newspapers and magazines or exposure to network newscasts. "It is not that they think politics doesn't matter, it is just low on the totem pole," Patterson says. "They are quite strongly oriented to the marketplace, instead of the public arenas. They are more attuned to their job, their career and acquiring material possessions. That is where they see their future lying."
But voting does matter, as those who do it understand. In 2000, as in 1996, the well-off will vote at a higher rate than anyone else. In 1996, 74 percent of voters with family incomes above $75,000 went to the polls as opposed to the 61 percent of voters with family incomes between $10,000 and $15,000 who stayed home. Not surprisingly, officials elected by wealthier voters craft laws and tax policies that benefit this better-off portion of the electorate (as well as the rich people and corporations who fund their campaigns). For the past 25 years, government policies have tilted the rules governing the economy in favor of those with lots of assets. Hence, since the mid-'70s, the richest 1 percent of households have found their share of the national wealth jump from 19 percent to 42 percent.
The 2000 election will see a record-breaking amount of special interest money poured into campaigns, ensuring that candidates will shy away from proposing any policy that might anger their wealthy sponsors. And just as surely, the 2000 election will see more people become alienated from the electoral process. It's a direct relationship: With each election, more money gets funneled in and more people opt out. The president's recent State of the Union address didn't offer alienated citizens any reason to renew their civic participation. "We stand on the mountaintop of a new millennium," Clinton said. "Behind us we see the great expanse of American achievement; before us, even grander frontiers of possibility. ... America again has the confidence to dream big dreams."
What are those dreams? A job that pays a living wage? A college education for everyone who wants one? Urban schools anyone would be happy to send their child to? An election that can't be bought by big money? Universal health care? A sensible military budget? In Washington these days, those aren't dreams, they're hallucinations.
For them to become reality, we need to redefine the government's role and shift public debate out of the "vital center," that political dead zone staked out by Clinton and his friends in the Democratic Leadership Council, where discussions of disparities of wealth and abuses of corporate power don't exist. ("We restored the vital center, replacing outdated ideologies with a new vision," Clinton told the nation.) Notably, only four words in Clinton's 9,160-word speech were devoted to campaign finance reform, an issue even Time magazine says "has divided all of us into two groups: first- and second-class citizens."
The dearth of presidential vision has been mirrored in the ongoing race for the Democratic nomination. For example, the health care proposals of Gore and Bradley are indistinguishable to all but the preternaturally wonkish and, as the debates proved, impossible to convey to a general audience. Neither was able to translate this issue (one of the top on voters' minds) or any other into voter enthusiasm, which explains why Democratic turnout in New Hampshire was so lackluster. As the Chicago Tribune's James O'Shea wrote: "Instead of the Democrats and Republicans of yesteryear, who were strongly defined along class lines, America's political parties are starting to resemble two wings of one party--the property party."
Curtis Gans, director for the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate in Washington, says the decline of political parties as participatory civic organizations has contributed to voter alienation. "The principal mobilizing agencies of our society, the political parties, have grown weaker and no longer have grassroots sinew," Gans says. "They are largely used for the raising of money and the dispensing of consultant services. We have a misalignment of our political party structure in which we have a Republican Party that is way to the right of the American center and a Democratic Party that has found political profit by aiming itself exclusively at the middle class."
Indeed, what the contest for the Democratic nomination has lacked is a progressive candidate who is willing to bring voters to the "grander frontiers of possibility" that Clinton so easily and emptily invokes. Jesse Jackson energized the electorate in 1984 and 1988. Imagine if Ralph Nader or Minnesota Sen. Paul Wellstone was the third voice in the Bradley and Gore debates. He would have had the opportunity to spend hours on NPR, CNN and C-SPAN talking about ways to save family farms, provide universal health care, curb corporate power, cut military spending and take government back to the people. He probably wouldn't win, but issues would get introduced into the public debate and vanishing voters might find someone who was speaking for them.
As it stands now, Nader, who refuses to be tainted by the Democratic Party, looks like he will make another third-party run for president. Though the national media will ignore his candidacy, the politically pure of heart will be able to vote their conscience--and once again have a grand old Quixotic time pissing into the wind.
This is not the time to give up on all Democrats. Good ones are out there. In the hours prior to Clinton's State of the Union address, the Congressional Progressive Caucus and the Progressive Challenge (www.netprogress.org), the caucus' educational support network coordinated by the Institute for Policy Studies, held a "Progressive State of the Union" featuring speeches and position papers.
The group's income inequality task force, chaired by Reps. Cynthia McKinney (D-Ga.) and Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), drew inspiration from the late great Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, who said, "We can have a democratic society or we can have great concentrated wealth in the hands of a few. We cannot have both." Lee spoke of her "A Living Wage, Jobs for All" bill that, in the framework of full employment and economic rights for all, advocates a living wage based on the cost of living in particular areas so that no one is faced with living below the poverty line while working a full-time job.
The health care task force chaired by Rep. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), issued a statement that read in part, "The Progressive Caucus is united in its goal of making health care a right, not a privilege. Every person should have access to affordable, comprehensive and high-quality medical care."
And Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.), who chairs the Progressive Caucus, took on the "the insatiably ravenous military industrial complex." He pointed to a recent General Accounting Office report that found that the Pentagon has $67 billion worth of inventory items in storage, $41.2 billion of which is unneeded, even in time of war. "We require fiscal discipline by other agencies and the Pentagon should be no different," DeFazio said. "But instead of forcing the Pentagon to clean up its act, Congress and the president would rather throw billions more into the abyss."
Big dreams? Yeah, some members of Congress still have them.
Joel Bleifuss is the editor of In These Times.