Why don’t more people vote? Seems to be an often asked question. Over the recent past most political pundits, as well as politicians on the right, try to blame it on the polarized, “hyperpartisan” some say, political climate. It’s usually done in an attempt to marginalize those on the left. Others think it’s because a vast vital center of the citizenry is “turned off” by this “so-called” partisan bickering. Don’t buy it.
After going through quite a bit of recent blog flurry created by an article in Newsweek written by Evan Smith, The Closing Of The American Mind, EOW’s come to a different determination. Voters don’t show up when exactly the opposite happens.Â That is, when there’s no clear choice between the candidates. In Smith’s article he purports that all the partisan bickering is turning off voters and lowering turnout:
Aside from an uptick in the 2004 presidential election, voter turnout has drifted downward since its modern peak in 1960 (from 63 percent to the low 50s), despite much easier rules on voter registration and expensive efforts to get out voters, writes Thomas Patterson, a professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and the author of “The Vanishing Voter.” For all the press hoopla over the coming presidential primaries, turnout rates are likely to dip way below 30 percent, he predicts.
That would be startling if it was true, but it’s not. As Kos shows the exact opposite has been happening in the last several election cycles.
First of all, a truly partisan media didn’t come into being until the late 80s. Rush Limbaugh’s syndicated show debuted in 1988. Fox News Channel came on the scene in 1996.
It’s true that in 1960, 63 percent voted. But by 1988, when Rush came on the scene, it was already down to 50.11%.
Then what happened? In 1992, turnout was UP, to 55.09%. 1996 was a bad year, as Bill Clinton’s obvious reelection trajectory kept people home — 49.08%. In 2000, it was up to 51.31%, and then, with the rise of PROGRESSIVE partisan media — the blogs and Air America — turnout was UP again in 2004 to 56.69%.
So in other words, the last election in which this nation lacked a partisan media was 1988, and turnout was 50.11% By 2004, with a strong conservative partisan media, and with a nascent progressive partisan media, it was at 56.69%. In 2008, we can gauge how the trends continue given the maturation of our media. In any case, that hardly justifies the thesis in the Newsweek piece linked above. In fact, it kind of shatters it.
After reading through many different opinions and studies (see below) on the topic of voter apathy it becomes clear that the main reason voters don’t turn out in the numbers they once did is because, by and large, the issues they are most interested in hearing about are not being addressed. In effect both candidates have almost the same platforms, with slight variations, offering the voters little if any choice between the two candidates.
As voter turnout decreases the mushy, wishy-washy, center becomes more vital. Those who are not having their issues addressed are, generally speaking, those toward the lower end of the economic scale. If all these potential voters see are two candidates talking about income tax cuts that they don’t make enough income to qualify for then why should they go vote? Then when the candidates finish, multiple pundits who can qualify for the tax cut, debate that same point. Again, why vote?
If a voter can’t afford health insurance and the only thing the two candidates are battling over is how high the tax incentive to buy health insurance should be, why should that person who can’t even afford to buy insurance, much less earn enough to get a tax incentive to buy it go vote? Now if we have one person saying they’re for a tax incentive and another candidate saying they’re for single-payer universal health care for all, that might be something worth going to vote for. Without that clear choice between candidates voter apathy increases and turnout decreases.
Open Left, in their critique of Thomas’ article, Moderately Lobotomized: The Closing Of The American Pundit’s Mind, has much more on how giving voters a choice determines whether more voters turnout.
Since 1952, the National Election Survey has tracked whether or not voters feel there are important differences between the two major parties. In the four presidential election years since 1992, by an average margin of 66% to 31%, national sentiment has overwhelmingly concluded that there are important differences. Records were set on this question in both 1996 and 2000, but in 2004 that sentiment reached by far its highest levels ever, when the nation concluded that there are important differences between the two major parties by a count of 76%–20%. By comparison, in the five presidential elections from 1972 to 1988, the average national score on this question was 55%–37% in favor of there being important differences. It is pretty safe to assume that the increasing belief that there are major differences between the two parties is the result of increased “polarization” of the two parties, a phenomenon often bemoaned by the Lieber-punditry nationwide.
In, in keeping with the thought experiment in the first paragraph of this article, what frequently goes unnoticed by these same Lieber-pundits is that increasing polarization and belief that there are important differences between the two parties has also resulted in an increase in voter turnout. In the four Presidential elections from 1992 to 2004, average voter turnout among the Voting Eligible Population was 57.1%. In the five previous Presidential elections, from 1972 to 1988, average turnout among the Voting Eligible Population was 55.4%. Polarization has resulted in an increased belief that there are important differences between the two parties, which has in turn resulted in an increase in voter turnout. This feels pretty obvious to me, since people are more likely to vote in elections where they feel important differences are at stake rest than in elections where they do not feel important differences rest on the outcome. For partially lobotomized pundits, however, this rather obvious trend is difficult to spot.
Therefore it makes sense that if voters are given a clear choice between the two candidates the higher the voter turnout will be. (Which probably has something to do with Democratic support being so low in Williamson County. Not having Democratic choices on the ballot just drives down Democratic turnout.) George Lakoff reminds us that the “center” doesn’t exist and when the Democrats try and play to it they are seen as being inconsistent in their values:
The losing strategy is to move to the right, to assume with Republicans that American values are mainly conservative and that the Democratic Party has to move away from its base and adopt conservative values. When you do that, you help activate conservative values in people’s brains (thus helping the other side), you offend your base (thus hurting yourself), and you give the impression that you are expressing no consistent set of values, which is true! Why should the American people trust somebody who does not have clear values, and who may be trying to deceive them about the values he and his party’s base hold?
And Paul Krugman (via McBlogger) shows us how it used to be done successfully:
I like to remind people who long for bipartisanship that FDR’s drive to create Social Security was as divisive as Bush’s attempt to dismantle it. And we got Social Security because FDR wasn’t afraid of division. In his great Madison Square Garden speech (Read and listen here), he declared of the forces of “organized money”: “Never before in all our history have these forces been so united against one candidate as they stand today. They are unanimous in their hate for meâ€”and I welcome their hatred.”
So, here’s my worry: Democrats, with the encouragement of people in the news media who seek bipartisanship for its own sake, may fall into the trap of trying to be anti-Bushesâ€”of trying to transcend partisanship, seeking some middle ground between the parties.
That middle ground doesn’t existâ€”and if Democrats try to find it, they’ll squander a huge opportunity. Right now, the stars are aligned for a major change in America’s direction. If the Democrats play nice, that opportunity may soon be gone.
That worries me too and it’s what this whole post is about. If Democrats don’t define themselves as different from Republicans they will squander the opportunity to make huge gains in the next several elections cycles. Don’t believeit?Â Then check out what this PEW research poll from earlier this year found.
The Republican Party appears to be paying a steep price for growing dissatisfaction with conditions in the country. However, while Democrats have clearly benefited from declining support for the GOP since 2002, these gains have come almost by default. While public perceptions of the Republican Party have tumbled, evaluations of the Democratic Party have not improved substantially in recent years, and the Democratic gains in party identification are in the form of a softer â€œleaningâ€ among independents rather than in the share who think of themselves as Democrats.
In other words recent Democratic gains have more to do with the Republican’s incompetence and inability to govern rather than any bold new strategy or policy initiative of the Democrats.Â And if they don’t capitalize this opportunity soon it will be gone.
Social Security was not created with a near 50/50 bipartisan feel good Congress. Democrats had massive majorities in both Houses of Congress. For Democrats to achieve what the American people overwhelmingly desire in a health care plan it will not come from the middle – making a deal with insurance corporations. It must be done by offering the American people a choice that is completely different from what we currently have, not a compromise. Then it will be done. When offered that choice, framed with American values, the American people will vote in that party which will make it happen. In an overwhelmingly partisan fashion. It happened before, our political ancestors did it, and we’ll do it again. Let’s just hope and work to make sureÂ it doesn’t take another great depression for this change to occur.
[More reference material used to write this post: The "vital center", polarization, there is no center (see Lakoff, Krugman above), polarization is the cause of lower voter turnout, polarization has actually caused turnout to rise over the last several elections (see Kos and Open Left post above), polarization is caused by income inequality and immigration.]