What does it mean to “believe in democracy”? Clearly, it requires you to want the rulers of government to be chosen by a vote held among the citizens at large. But the real controversial question is, does it require you to care that the percentage of citizens who ACTUALLY vote be as high as possible, or is it enough that a vote was held and no portion of the citizenry was precluded from voting?
In other words, to be an authentic democracy, must we go out of our way actively to encourage voting by all races, colors, creeds, and socio-economic classes? Or is it our view that voting is a privilege, not a right, and citizens who don’t prioritize taking advantage of this privilege don’t deserve our encouragement to participate in elections?
These questions tend to be on the back burner in America today. Instead, our chattering class would rather talk about more “substantive” issues like immigration, tax, or health care policy, rather than such “procedural” topics as whether election days should be federal holidays to encourage voting. Perhaps pundits may be unmoved by the need to enact election reforms because we’ve already come such a long way in achieving a level playing field at the voting booth. No more is suffrage denied to particular races or genders. No more do we have literacy tests or poll taxes. Now, at least in theory, anyone who really wants to vote can do so. So, shouldn’t we devote our attention exclusively to more pressing matters?
Hardly. I would argue that election reform should be at or near the top of our national agenda. Indeed, I would say that America’s claim to being a democracy turns precisely on whether we take seriously the questions raised at the beginning of this post.
Consider me in the group that believes that legitimate democracies exist for the betterment of all the citizens, not just some of them, and that the higher the percentage of voters, the more secure, just, and prosperous a society becomes. We stopped allowing literacy taxes because the health of our society requires that our leaders serve all the people, and not only the best educated. Otherwise, why not just confine suffrage to Phi Beta Kappans and National Merit Scholars? We stopped allowing poll taxes because the health of our society requires that our leaders serve all the people, and not only the most affluent. Otherwise, why not just confine suffrage to country club members and families who stand to benefit if the estate tax is eliminated?
Plenty of people I know would like to see Election Day become a national holiday (or, in the case of odd-year elections, a state holiday in the relevant states). Nevertheless, in election after election, this reform fails to get enacted, and nobody even wastes much ink on the topic. Why is that? Would we not agree that this one concrete change of law would effect a material change in the percentage of voters? Would we not agree that a society as affluent as ours could easily afford to allow an extra day off from work every couple of years? Then what explains the failure to make this change?
Months ago, I detailed the United States’ horrid voting stats compared to other economically advanced nations. Our problems in this area were on display again this past week. The Democrats of the state of Virginia are falling all over themselves raving about the tremendous increase in voting in that state over previous elections. But the fact is that the majority of registered voters in all parts of the state continued to stay away from the gubernatorial race. And in New Jersey, only 37% of registered voters showed up to vote for governor. That’s 37% of REGISTERED voters, not eligible voters. Stated simply, with everything that happened this past year to spark our national attention to the political process, we’re still a nation of non-voters. Some democracy.
Sadly, I suspect that our unwillingness to show up and be counted is exactly what many American leaders are counting on. I’m talking the “voting is a privilege, not a right” set. If pushed to tell the truth, they may privately acknowledge that voting is difficult for wage earners who live from paycheck to paycheck and can hardly afford to miss several hours of work. But they also would point out that working class people could, if sufficiently motivated, show up at their local precinct and any loss of income in the process would presumably be a modest one. More to the point, these “don’t get out the vote” types presumably also realize that if the voter rolls were expanded, the new wage earners, especially if they live in the inner cities, would not be likely to vote the same way as the truly privileged set. They may not, for example, vote for politicians who wish to see the benefits of income tax reform go primarily to the people who pay the most taxes and earn the most income, which is obviously the direction that tax reform is taking. So why, the argument concludes, are we obliged to make it any easier for the working class to vote? Isn’t it their responsibility to show up and unseat the politicians that currently represent affluent Americans in Washington and in state houses throughout the land?
This past week, Dan Rather and Elliott Kirschner came out with a book entitled “What Unites Us.” It’s kind of an intriguing title, don’t you think? The authors set out to discuss what they call the “great experiment in democracy” and the values that over the years have helped this experiment succeed. But I have to ask, in light of the fact that more Americans miss the opportunity to vote than seek it, and that we won’t even encourage our working class to take Election Day off from work, can we identify the belief in democracy as one of our unifying values any more? Can we really say that we stack up in this regard to countries in Europe or Australia where voting percentages dwarf our own?
For decades, Dan Rather’s voice has been far more uplifting than mine. That’s one reason I like him; he offers plenty of hope without sounding clueless. But this is the Empathic Rationalist blog where there are even more important values than being hopeful, such as being brutally honest. For me, it is not enough to say that America stands for democracy. We must first answer the questions raised at the beginning of this post.
Do we or don’t we believe that a democracy is a place where most eligible voters vote, and if they don’t, where the powers-that-be find ways to encourage them to do so? For me, there is no other type of full-throated democracy. The alternative, the half-hearted model, is dragging down our democracy, our republic, and our potential.