Disconnected: Politics, the Press and the Public
Is the public to blame for voter apathy?
Samuel G. Freedman
Samuel G. Freedman
yesLast May, during a visit to Israel that happened to coincide with its national election, I noticed a small article in the Jerusalem Post. A supporter of Ehud Barak, the challenger in the race for prime minister, had been arrested for fatally punching a backer of the incumbent, Benjamin Netanyahu.

A few days later, after Barak had triumphed, there appeared a follow-up item. The alleged killer had been released and all charges dropped. An autopsy had determined that the Netanyahu booster had died of a stroke -- brought on by the vociferous argument he and the Barak man had been having on a street corner.

I couldn't help but feel a mixture of amusement and envy. Coming from the United States, where barely half the registered voters can rouse themselves to the polls for a presidential election, I had been invigorated by an Israeli campaign with posters on every fence, buttons on every lapel, and a turnout well over 80 percent. Even this death seemed strangely admirable: when was the last time anybody in America cared enough to burst a blood vessel ranting about his favorite candidate?

Israel and the United States

Of course, there are plenty of logical reasons for the disparity in turn-out between Israel and the United States. An election in Israel involves issues of national security and peace negotiation that are literally matters of life and death. Certain political scientists would have us believe that the mediocre turn-out in American elections suggests that citizens so deeply trust our brand of democratic capitalism they feel no particular need to help choose its leaders.

More commonly, though, political scientists and media pundits have warned us that the declining participation by American voters signals a profound disenchantment with the political system, a belief that Democrats and Republicans actually belong to the same party of "Incumbecrats," interested only in perpetuating their power. Thus it takes the periodic comet of an insurgent candidacy -- H. Ross Perot in 1992, Jesse Ventura in 1998, John McCain in 2000 -- to revive voters' interest.

That argument certainly has truth and merit, but it strikes me as woefully incomplete. The highest turnout in any presidential election in more than sixty years, 63 per cent of registered voters, occurred in the 1960 race between John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon, when the stances of the Democratic and Republican parties were in fact virtually identical on key issues. Both parties supported the Cold War abroad and the New Deal's welfare state at home. Outside the segregationist South, civil rights was as much a Republican issue as a Democratic one; Martin Luther King, Jr., for a time leaned toward supporting Nixon.

Party divides, voting declines

When the parties divided more starkly, voting rates declined. Whether the drop was causal or coincidental, I cannot say, but it is a demonstrable fact. In an election notable for clear ideological divisions, and enhanced by a significant third-party candidate, only 53.5 percent of registered voters went to the polls in 1980 to choose between Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, and John Anderson. The 1994 Congressional election, which returned the Republican Party to a majority in both chambers for the first time in nearly a half-century and marked the apogee of the conservative movement, was decided on the votes of just 39 percent of the electorate.

And that is part of my point. The Reagan Revolution, begun in 1980 and deepened in 1994, transformed American politics. It broke the national consensus that had undergirded the New Deal's big-government liberalism and established a new orthodoxy of smaller government, fewer entitlements, lower taxes, more privatization. Whether one agrees with the program or not, it represented a drastic shift in American public policy.

So what is all this nonsense about how it doesn't matter who wins or which party holds power because politicians are all alike? The people who couldn't be troubled to vote, it often seemed to me, were the same ones ready to complain about the power of the Christian Coalition on the right or labor unions on the left. Well, when turnout is abysmal, an organized minority not only can win, but deserves to win.

Now that Bill Bradley and John McCain have conceded defeat in their respective parties, and now that the Reform party is being crippled by internal rifts, we can be sure that the Gore-Bush campaign will inspire a new round of hand-wringing about the lack of choices for the disaffected American voter. No one should believe it. There's a truism among political consultants that winning an election requires "50 percent plus one." Which is another way of saying that voters do count to the people courting them. Those who prefer to stay home, and the scholars and journalists who chronicle them, can try to dress up their passivity in idealism. But ignorance and indifference should never be glorified as moral postures.

Samuel G. Freedman, a professor of journalism at Columbia University, is the author of books including "The Inheritance: How Three Families and America Moved from Roosevelt to Reagan and Beyond." His newest book, "Jew Vs. Jew: The Struggle for the Soul of American Jewry," will be published in August 2000 by Simon & Schuster.
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