I’ve been doing a little thinking this weekend about voter participation. The reasons why so many Americans fail to vote are certainly varied and complex. Even the evaluation of voter turn-out as “low” is a complicated issue. What is low? How do we know? And is it good or bad for democracy? We just don’t have adequate, scientific answers for these seemingly simple questions.
I suggest, however, that we do not need scientific answers, i.e. quantifiable data that demonstrates why “low” voter turn-out is bad. I think we can approach the situation more deductively by asserting high participation as a cultural value based on what we know from the past.
Here’s a small example: We may have reached the condition of “virtual representation” as espoused by Edmund Burke. Our aristocracy is not the landed gentry of 18th-century England. Instead, our virtual representatives are special interest factions, corporations, and others who donate time and money to make the political process work. This minority runs American government. One vote appears insignificant.
Robert Maynard Hutchins claimed that the “death of democracy is not likely to be an assassination from ambush. It will be a slow extinction from apathy, indifference, and undernourishment.” He suggested liberal education is the key to greater participation because it should instill within its students a love of country that springs from knowledge and appreciation of our American and Western heritages.
One small, encouraging note: After the 2000 election, I asked my students if they had voted. In a representative class of 25 students, only two raised their hands. Last week, 12 students raised their hands.