Distilled Democracy

Most American young adults have grown up with at least a vague sense of disillusionment towards the democratic voting processes.  Since the historically low voter turnout during the 1996 presidential election — during which less than 50 percent of the voting-age population participated — the collective attitude towards voting in elections has been one of frustration or sarcasm, that we are in some sense humoring American democracy by going to the voting booth, or even that voting in elections has been reduced to a sort of symbolic ritual. This attitude resonates across the public sphere, in mainstream media, and especially in grassroots forums. It’s too easy to find interviews with the poor, those that exist at the very fringes of society — the literally disenfranchised — who (rightly) expect to feel no difference in their day-to-day lives, whether the executive branch is Democratic or Republican.  Could it be the case that, in reality, there is no such thing as a “people’s president?”

In a bipartisan democracy, one would expect that approval ratings would, in general, hover constantly somewhere around 50 percent.  Indeed, federal election results are always closely divided.  But in today’s America, where it isn’t rare to see congressional approval ratings in the teens, something seems to have gone wrong.  Why would Americans elect congressional members from their own party, only to strongly disapprove of their actions within their first year in office?

When stated as such, it seems obvious that the problem lies in the fact that Americans are not being presented with options they would ever freely select, but instead are constantly deciding between the lesser of two evils.  Particularly in present-day politics, characterized by two increasingly polarized, self-interested parties, majorities feel alienated from the political entities that are supposed to represent their desires, or, at the very least, prioritize the population’s general well being.

As far as democracies go, the United States consistently ranks among the lowest in voter turnout.  Other Western democracies make far better showings, in terms of democratic participation — in particular, Australia and Chile. So what about these democracies continues to encourage voters to participate in the system? What about these voting booths is so attractive on their election days?  The most obvious factor at play is that some of these countries have compulsory voting policies.  Australia, for example, requires that voters who did not cast their ballots be able to provide legitimate reasons for failing to perform their civic duties, or face a small fine. Typically the upshot of this policy is less than 1 percent of eligible voters being penalized, with voter turnouts staying just shy of 100 percent.  As ideal as the outcome may be, it’s unlikely a similar arrangement would succeed in the United States, considering how committed Americans are to a sense of unrestricted freedom.  In any case, mandatory voting laws may well generate a superficial fix, in which, on paper, a larger number of citizens “approve” of one candidate, but in reality, only approve of the other option less and would prefer to avoid an unnecessary fine.

Other countries, however, manage to encourage voters to show at a rates in the nineties without forcing them to do so.  Malta, for example, boasts one of the highest voter turnouts in the world without enforcing a mandatory vote, closely followed by Chile.  The enormous margin of difference between voter turnouts in Malta versus the United States is generally attributed to the small, centralized federal government, whose very compactness guarantees that any changes enacted by the voting population will resonate in the government and in the lives of the citizens of Malta in visible ways. Democracies that rank the lowest in turnout rates — Switzerland, India, as well as the United States — generally have a more localized layer of government, in which voting citizens feel they have more opportunity to participate than they do in the distant and aloof federal counterparts. It’s easy to see why: When the stakes in an election are guaranteed to make a visible difference in their public experiences and private lives, voters will feel impelled to participate — and will be cognizant of whether their voices are being heard. In addition, democracies with multi-party systems typically fare slightly better in terms of voter participation, offering an explanation for why Europeans tend to exercise their voting rights at slightly higher rates than Americans.  It’s an intuitive connection: When offered a greater array of options, voters are much more likely to feel genuinely aligned with a party’s platform, and less likely that they are being forced to marginalize their own interests.  In particular, countries that have some variant of a populist party — a self-declared blue-collar party that represents specifically middle- and working-class interests — is more likely to see higher turnout.  One could easily have anticipated this tendency, too, considering the pervasive and cynical conception of politics as an affair of the least.  The increase in voter turnout during the 2008 presidential election came primarily from mobilized students, blue-collar workers, and minorities, who perhaps felt that Obama was a relatively accessible candidate.

All of these factors indicate that the perceived ambivalence in American voters arises from big politics’ inability to sympathize with the average voter.  Try as presidential hopefuls might, the enormous disparity between popular opinion polls and election results suggests that Americans as well as voters in other low-turnout democracies are simply not offered desirable voting options. According to popular opinion, for example, Tony Blair ought to have never been reelected in 2005; it was only due to the popularity of the Labour Party that he was permitted to stay in office.  In today’s political landscape, there appears to be a widening rupture between political action and the will of the people, but what is more disturbing yet is how few opportunities to affect change in the stratum of the political elite are built into the system.  Even democratic elections themselves sometimes seem to have been degraded to ritual gestures, significant more for their symbolism than as acts that genuinely reflect the will of the people.  This was perhaps never more obvious than in the European Union’s Lisbon Treaty referendum in 2008, when Ireland was the only member country to vote “no” on an amendment that would alter the policy election process to require a majority rather than unanimity, among other changes.  Rather than respect the outcome of the referendum as a failed attempt at policy change, EU officials instead pressured Ireland into a second round of an identical referendum, calling the original failure a “crisis” that was the responsibility of the Irish government to solve, with an understood threat of EU expulsion looming tacitly overhead.  After a period of reflection and offers of concessions and compensation to Ireland, a second referendum yielded the opposite result, perhaps because the Irish voting population had become more educated on the complex piece of legislature, or, more likely, because discussions of Ireland “redefining” its relationship to Europe (to put it euphemistically) had suddenly entered into public discourse.  The exposure of a disconnect between election results and action resulting from the Lisbon Treaty situation is astounding, and certainly unexceptional.  In fact, the practice of posing an insignificantly revised referendum after its initial failure is common enough to have coined the term “repeated referenda” as a political “strategy.”

So perhaps the American disillusionment with the ritual of voting is founded on concrete instances of elections failing to actualize the collective will it indicates. Why should a voter select between two unsatisfying options — two parties with identical policies in one case, for example, or opposing policies that are both polarized beyond the majority’s preference in either direction?  And, more importantly, why are democratic voters posed with voting options that concern legislation so complex that most politicians aren’t entirely educated on its implications?  Or, worse yet, why should Americans be put through the farce of voting when there is no guarantee that their preferences will be translated into social change?  When the very systems that structure our voting options are subject to change following an unsatisfying election result, how can an educated public be expected to respect the empty right to vote, and to consider the gesture of voting worth the effort?  That one’s vote is just a drop of water in an ocean is an easy and somewhat unrefined complaint, and one that obviously has no easily attainable solution.  But when the voice of a popular majority is reported and heard only after it has been distilled through a partial and specific government structure, it’s no wonder that few American voters feel that voting is significant — or even that the political sphere is a forum in which their voices belong.