Why don't Americans vote?

Flora Lewis

November 08, 1990|By Flora Lewis

PARIS — THE QUESTION everybody else asks when there are elections in the United States is why Americans don't vote. It is sad and bitter to acknowledge that most people in the country that trumpets itself as leader of the democracies can't be bothered to make use of the process.

The irony when people so long deprived of freedom's right elsewhere have triumphed over terrible obstacles is not diminished by being familiar to the point of becoming trite.

I don't know why it happens. All the facile explanations ring with some element of truth. But the U.S. has not cornered the world supply of venal politicians, of windbags, of cynics, nor of disillusioned citizens.

Anything under about three out of four eligible voters taking part in any major election is considered shocking in other democracies.

Democracy is much more than an election, of course, as the hapless countries of Eastern Europe are discovering. It is about open argument, capacity to compromise, tolerance of opposition, patience to persevere in defeat and try again to persuade.

But there is not another way beside elections to establish government by consent. There are always governments of some kind. Good or bad, society can't survive without them.

The Dutch "Provos," the feisty and witty anti-establishmentarian

of the 1968 generation, found out in an unusually painless way. They ran candidates in an Amsterdam election and some won.

"That's the trouble," said a disgruntled rebel. "No matter who wins, the government always gets in."

Governments can make sure they don't have to worry about how people want to vote by repression, terror, vast corruption. They also lose, eventually, but in upheavals, coups, revolutions, which often start the awful cycle again.

Democracies can make bad mistakes, like others, but they have the unique advantage of a way to make corrections before it's too late.

Government by indifference, which is the result of some third of the electorate exercising its right (not a privilege; the privilege is to have inherited the basic right) is not really government by consent. Things can be done to improve the choice offered if people really want a better choice. Things can be done to reduce the power of money and raise the level of debate if people want a better way of choosing.

The amount of money spent on this lackadaisical, largely ignored midterm campaign is staggering. The average senator has to raise $12,000 a week every week of his six-year term for his re-election campaign fund. Congress has long been talking about reforming campaign finance. Nothing much happens because the voters generally respond by turning their backs on congressional elections.

The big spiral in campaign costs is primarily the expense of TV advertising and carefully programmed expertise. ("Mention children or animals in almost every sentence," a professional consultant was recently quoted as saying. "It doesn't matter what else you say.") Nothing much happens because the voters confound the experts.

People are told what the poll-takers painstakingly calculate they want to hear. But they are so fed up with listening that they tune out and let the poll-takers shape the decision.

People loved Ronald Reagan and his feel-good, do-nothing-unpleasant politics. Now they are recognizing the legacy, but they are not angry about having swallowed the snake oil. They are angry at being confronted with the bill, and their conclusion is that politics is too dirty to contemplate.

This abdication won't ruin America. There is a resilience and underlying vitality that has carried the country through much worse. But it is especially depressing at a time when large parts of the world are groping for what America always preached and finds so hard to practice.

V.S. Naipaul, the superb writer born of Hindu parents in Trinidad and exquisitely educated in England, speaks now of a new "universal civilization." It is a sense of the individual, with opportunity and responsibility, no longer a cog in someone else's age-old scheme.

"The idea of the pursuit of happiness is at the heart of the attractiveness of the civilization to so many outside it or on its periphery. I find it marvelous to contemplate to what an extent . h hTC . the idea has come to a kind of fruition. It is an elastic idea, it fits all men. It implies a certain kind of society, a certain kind of awakened spirit."

That is happening around the world. What makes Americans sleepy?

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