Voter apathy is the enemy of representative democracy. It exaggerates the importance of the extremist fringe and bolsters the influence of narrow interest groups. Public policy is skewed to reward the organized and well-heeled, not necessarily the deserving. So Social Security and Medicare reform is delayed because two-thirds of senior citizens vote, while only a quarter of Generation Xers (whose taxes support these entitlements) bother to show up at the polls. Book-banners take over local school boards when moderate parents stay home. Zealots pass antibusiness ballot initiatives when those who are pro-growth don't vote. That's why we're worried about the Nov. 5 election. Surveys indicate that turnout could drop below 50% for the first time since 1948, when Democrat Harry S Truman edged out Thomas E. Dewey.
This wasn't supposed to be. The 1995 "motor voter" law registered up to 15 million new voters. A million immigrants became naturalized citizens over the past 12 months. What's happening? Conventional wisdom holds that, in 1996, people are fat and happy and therefore don't care which politician or party takes power in Washington. The economy is good, unemployment is low, the country is not threatened, so what's to worry? A second explanation says that people are alienated and feel that their personal lives are not affected by what occurs inside the Beltway. Democrats? Republicans? Whatever.
We blame negative campaigning for declining voter turnout. The barrage of negative advertising on TV is designed to do one thing--raise the "negatives" of political opponents. The result is a 1996 Presidential race where the three candidates have the highest negative voter ratings in history. According to the latest Harris polls, Bill Clinton has a 45% negative rating, Bob Dole has 55%, and Ross Perot has 70%.
Targeting an opponent's negatives is supposed to turn voters away from that candidate. But when all the candidates are running such campaigns, the net result on the margin is to turn voters away from the process. Why vote when they're all so nasty? This is more than alienation. This is anger at the entire polity--dangerous stuff for a democracy.
We're hoping that people overcome their self-satisfaction, alienation, and anger on Nov. 5. The very success of narrow interest groups in politics is proof that the system remains open and attentive to those who show up and shake the cage. Being there is half the game. Get out and vote.