None Of The Above

In an interesting article in this month’s Empirical magazine, Randall Auxier, a philosophy professor at Southern Illinois University has a provocative suggestion to make about increasing voter participation in this country which, as we all know, is something of an embarrassment. In his article about the “Death and Resurrection of Democratic Institutions” he suggests that there should be a box on each ballot sheet next to the list of candidates for public office giving the voter the option to vote for “none of the above.” In this way, disenchanted voters would have the opportunity to express their displeasure about the candidates listed and in some cases the office might even become vacant. This would not only increase voter participation, it might help clean out some of the dead wood occupying space in our political offices!

Auxier, taking a page from Richard Rorty, is convinced that our democracy is on life support. It suffers from a variety of maladies, including voter apathy, but due most recently to the fear of impending terrorist attacks, not to mention the increasing wealth of a small number of individuals in the country who are in the position to determine political outcomes. I would add that the government is dysfunctional to the degree that compromise at the Federal level, which is the life-breath of any thriving democratic system, no longer appears possible.

But the most recent threat to our democratic way of life, as Auxier points out, is the so-called “war on terror,” which is not a war at all but which has instilled in the population a creeping paranoia and a willingness to turn over the reins of power to the military. This has always been the case with a great many Republicans, of course, but it now appears to be the case with our President and a growing number of Democrats in the Congress as well — as I have noted in a previous blog.

Whatever the causes might be, I think we can agree that the Republic for which we stand today is a far cry from the ideal created by the founders over two hundred years ago. To an extent that was inevitable, because it was impossible for them to predict the future — they did not see the growing power and influence of corporations, for example. But also, the disparity between what our founders hoped to create and today’s reality has been greatly enlarged by the fear we have all felt since the attacks on 9/11 and the subsequent fear-mongering on the part of the politicians (and the weapons-manufacturers who help get them elected) who have learned that a fearful population is one that is much easier to control.

Many of us can recall F.D.R’s famous comment during his first inaugural address, “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” Auxier makes a strong case out for the fact that the fear we are all experiencing in what we insist on calling the “war on terror” is destructive of democracy itself. As he puts it, “We need to open borders and start trusting one another again. Terrorists are not killing democracy, unreasonable fear and its anti-democratic practices are killing democracy. Have the courage to bequeath to your children a world fit to live in, psychologically, and you will teach them that over-reactions of the late 20th century are a lesson in what not to do when threatened. We don’t mean to, but we are creating whole new generations of human beings whose ethos and expectations are closer to the police state than the democratic world our parents gave to us.”

These strike me as wise words and ones worth pondering as we seek to maintain our balance and remain calm while many around us continue to promote fear by exaggerating serious threats and making remote possibilities seem much nearer than they are. Perhaps this way we can keep our democracy on life-support a while longer.

I Really Don’t Care

I have always wondered why so many people simply don’t care about who it is that is running the country and now that those who are doing so are clearly the few who simply want things to go on as they are as long as they continue to grow rich the problem becomes compounded. This is because if things keep going on as they are now the Constitution won’t be worth the paper it’s written on and the planet will suffer irreparable damage. And yet people generally don’t care.

I take my clue from Dostoevsky, one of the deepest minds I ever attempted to fathom. In his chapter in The Brothers Karamazov entitled “The Grand Inquisitor,” to which I have alluded in an earlier blog, he suggests that humans don’t really want freedom, they want “miracles, mystery, and authority.” We pride ourselves in this country on being one of the freest nations on earth, but if growing numbers of us are quite satisfied to have someone else running things because we are too busy having fun, earning a living, or watching football (which may or may not be fun), then we are not free in any but the loosest possible sense of that term: we aren’t in jail.  But we are prisoners to someone else’s will, namely those who govern, those who make the rules. But apparently that seems to be OK for most folks. All they ask is that they be left alone and make sure they have enough money so they can continue to divert their attention away from pressing problems they really don’t want to worry about. This, of course, explains America’s preoccupation with the economy which has become the central point of interest in political elections. Be that as it may, the result is citizen apathy — a sign of which is voter apathy which, as we know (and the following chart dramatizes), is widespread in this country:

Though the chart requires no explanation, I will provide the explanation that accompanied it in the Wikipedia article: Over the last 40 years, voter turnout has been steadily declining in the established democracies. This trend has been significant in the United States, Western Europe, Japan and Latin America. It has been a matter of concern and controversy among political scientists for several decades. During this same period, other forms of political participation have also declined, such as voluntary participation in political parties and the attendance of observers at town meetings. The decline in voting has also accompanied a general decline in civic participation, such as church attendance, membership in professional, fraternal, and student societies, youth groups, and parent-teacher associations. At the same time, some forms of participation have increased. People have become far more likely to participate in boycotts, demonstrations, and to donate to political campaigns. [Footnotes are in the article on-line.]

Writing in the Federalist Papers, James Madison thought it was “essential to liberty that the government in general should have a common interest with the people,” and felt that a bond between the people and the representatives was “particularly essential.” He wrote “frequent elections are unquestionably the only policy by which this dependence and sympathy can be effectually secured.” This hasn’t happened: though voter turnout in 2008 was up a bit, a study in 2009 showed that few Americans were familiar with leaders of Congress and many college graduates didn’t know how many Senators each state has! Voter apathy is apparent: citizen apathy, related as it is to ignorance and an extremely narrow focus, is the root of the problem.

When pollsters brag about voter turnout in 2008  it was still less than 70%. And many of those who voted were obviously ignorant about the issues and the candidates. There is cause for alarm. This is especially the case in light of the decline so evident in the chart above, which shows this country reflecting deeper voter apathy than other democratic nations.  What it also shows in no uncertain terms is that growing numbers of Americans are perfectly content to let someone else run the show; they are too busy doing something else to care. As long as they can “do their thing,” as long as they can live more or less to the standard they regard as appropriate, it doesn’t matter who is in charge. In a word, they are perfectly content to be slaves to another’s will, unfree though easily deluded into thinking they are among the most free persons on the planet. It does give one pause.