Saturday, December 6, 2014

Why They Don't Vote

A column by Martin Dyckman in Context Florida Magazine pondering why so few of us bother to vote. Often with good reason he argues persuasively, noted on this the anniversary of Pearl Harbor Day:
It was on Nov. 19, 1863, at the dedication of the Gettysburg battlefield cemetery, that President Abraham Lincoln expressed the purpose of America as we like to think of it today, pledging himself and the nation to honor the fallen heroes by ensuring that “government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
In the voting a year later — which Lincoln had doubted he would win — the people rallied to his challenge. Not only did they re-elect him; the turnout of those eligible to vote in the North and the four Border States was 73.4 percent. It puts to shame today’s summer soldiers and sunshine patriots.
The government that Lincoln idealized, and for which he gave his life, is in grave danger again. Its survival is in doubt.
In the eyes of many, it has ceased already to be a government of the people, by the people, for the people. It has become a government by only some people for only some other people.
Barely a third of the eligible voting-age population — 36.4 percent — voted in the midterms this month, the lowest since 1942, when millions were at war or working long shifts in defense plants. This estimate accounts for all who should have registered, not simply those who did.
These days, the non-voters include people in states like Texas, Indiana, and Wisconsin, where voter ID laws are diabolically difficult to satisfy. According to the United States Election Project, Florida performed better, at 43.1 percent, than the national average. But even in Florida, some 75,000 people who did show up at the polls cast no vote for governor, a number greater than the winner’s margin.
“Low turnout is more than a set of figures to lament; it is an indicator of deep problems within American democracy,” writes Curtis Gans, director of the Center for the Study of the American Electorate, who forecast the low November turnout based on apathy in the primaries.
“Contributing factors to the decline in motivation are not hard to find,” Gans writes.
Among the reasons: “campaigns that are run on scurrilous attack ads that give the citizen a perceived choice between bad and awful; one major party situated far to the right of the American center and the other without a clear and durable message; a decline in faith that government will address major societal needs exacerbated by those whose politics seek to accomplish just that… increased inequality that has the collateral effect of reducing hope for those at the bottom….”
Some people don’t vote simply because they’re lazy. Others are satisfied with the status quo, or willing to accept whoever wins. But that hardly describes very many people these days.
In my view, the major reason people don’t vote is that they don’t think it will make a difference. That does make a difference by leaving the choice to those who are motivated because they are angry. In this election, that faction consisted largely of white men.
Sad to say, there are sound reasons to think voting won’t make a difference.
In many cases, it really doesn’t. Most congressional districts are drawn to determine the outcome. If you’re a Republican in Corinne Brown’s district, or a Democrat in Ander Crenshaw’s, why bother to vote? Indeed, no Democrat saw any use at all in running against Crenshaw. The same manipulation has rigged the perpetual outcomes of most state legislative districts.
Regardless of specific elections, Congress and the legislatures in the long haul respond primarily to the big lobbies rather than to public sentiment on such issues as tax reform or corporate liability. I wrote not long ago on a scholarly study that documented how the United States is already, for all that matters, an oligarchy in the form of a republic. The public gets what it wants only when it coincides with what the Koch brothers and other plutocrats want.
One of the authors of that study, Princeton Professor Martin Gillens, is the author of a new book Affluence & Influence: Economic Inequality and Political Power in America. In his introduction, he quotes the prescient warning of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis: “We can have democracy in this country, or we can have great wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we cannot have both.”
Martin Dyckman is a retired associate editor of the St. Petersburg Times. He lives near Waynesville, N.C. Column courtesy of Context Florida.