Democracy’s Genetic Weakness

In August 2004 we were in the middle of another “national election”—or, if you wish, “unbelievably expensive shitstorm of lies and misdirection”—and as it happened I was also working my way through a pile of back issues of The New Yorker that I was keeping on the bathroom floor.

What.  Like you don’t do that.

Anyway, I had an epiphany, right there in the library. In an August 30 article entitled “The Unpolitical Animal,” a guy named Louis Menand pointed out (at great length) that American elections are generally decided by people with no political philosophy.

My first instinct is to think of these people as idiots. In a world swirling with issues that ultimately will decide whether any form of real democracy can survive, these folks go out and do their civic duty by voting according to campaign slogans, or the candidates’ dogs, or the color of their posters.

Menand referred extensively to the work of a political scientist named Philip Converse, who had concluded (in a sexy article called “The Nature of Belief Systems in Mass Publics”) that “only around ten per cent of the public has what can be called … a political belief system.” Keep in mind that this ten percent includes voters on both the left and right. He named these people “ideologues,” by which he meant not that they are fanatics but that they have “a reasonable grasp of ‘what goes with what’—of how a set of opinions adds up to a coherent political philosophy.”

In other words, “idealogues” are the people who see the connection between manufacturing being moved to to China to keep prices down (or, uh, profits high), and the problem of unemployment in Buffalo. Only ten percent seem to understand that you can’t cut taxes while you spend billions on war(s) and still expect your town to have a school bus. Or, in right-wing terms, you can’t allow schoolteachers to be represented by a union and still expect the kids to learn about Jesus.

Most voters, Converse said (about 42 percent in a 1956 survey), vote on the basis not of ideology but of “perceived self-interest,” which is logical, as far as it goes. Another 25 percent vote according to their sense of whether times are good or bad. Of course, in 1956 we didn’t have TV news, and Fox “News” in particular, to help us decide what our best interests might be, or to beat the drum of impending apocalypse until we don’t even hear it any more.

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This absence of “real opinions” is not from lack of brains, Menand says; it’s from lack of interest.

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And approximately 22 percent vote for reasons that have nothing to do with issues, self-interest, the stock market–nothing. They vote for the candidate with the nicest smile, or they vote against all the incumbents because there’s been too much rain lately.

(If you are interested in the original article, which covers a lot more ground and includes the work of many people, you can go here, or just go to the newyorker.com archives and look for “The Unpolitical Animal.”)

The meaning of that 22 percent is that, for every voter, left or right, with a coherent political belief system, there are two voters who have no political views at all.

• From 1952 to 2000, when prospective voters were asked who they wanted to win, between 22 and 44 percent of the responses were “don’t care” or “don’t know.”

• In 2000, five percent of the electorate decided who they were going to vote for on the day of the election. Menand noted that five percent would be enough to swing many elections.

• Seventy percent of Americans, according to Menand, cannot name their senators or their representative.*

This absence of “real opinions” is not from lack of brains, Menand says; it’s from lack of interest. “It’s not that people know nothing. It’s just that politics is not what they know.”

I was surprised to learn this. For years I thought I was a typical person, and that everyone went around agonizing over their political assumptions from time to time. Seemingly not.

And so in 2010, as they do after every presidential election, a sizable number of voters went out and–because their lives had not become a bed of roses–voted for the other guys.

Or, and this is much worse, believing their previous worship of Obama to have been betrayed, they stayed home and allowed the idiots in the paragraph above to sway the election.

For the love of whatever it is you cherish, I beg you: Be one of the ten percent. Regardless of how I feel about conservatives, or anarchists, or liberals, I can admire them if they are thinking. We have all heard the cliché that democracy is not a spectator sport, which usually is taken to mean that one should go out and vote. And that’s true, but I would add that democracy cannot survive too many people who vote without thinking, as if democracy were a sport.

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* Kids! Try this at home! Ask your friends who their representatives are! Fun for the whole civilization!