The Learned Helplessness of the American Voter

Larry Lessig has an idea of who taught it to them.

Updated on
Cartoon by the Kean Collection

Seventy-two years and 16 days have passed since Election Day, 1942. Back then, the country had plunged into World War II, millions of drafted citizens were fighting abroad, and African Americans in the South, though counted as eligible voters, faced severe disenfranchisement. That fall, George Gallup wrote in the New York Times, “people are unusually busy these days”; there were shortages to cope with, food rations, and only 33.9 percent of Americans ended up voting that year. In the midterm elections held this Nov. 4—when no World War was waging—only 36.3 percentage of the eligible population voted, the lowest turnout seen since 1942. What excuse do we have?

Apathy is the standard answer from pundits and professors alike. The country would rather be tweeting GIFs, or playing Kevin Spacey’s badass new “Call of Duty.” But while it’s true that many of us are disengaged from the political process, it's too convenient to chalk it all up to lack of interest, or concern—just look at Ferguson, Mo., where Governor Jay Nixon has ordered in the National Guard, after ordering them in last summer because the protests grew so loud. The word “apathy” isn’t quite right to describe the current political condition.

I spoke by phone last week with the political activist and Harvard Law School professor Larry Lessig, who earlier this year launched Mayday, a self-styled “crowd-funded SuperPAC to end all SuperPACs…including this one,” to agitate for campaign-finance reform (although he considers that phrase a euphemism comparable to “liquid-intake problem” for alcoholism). Mayday has raised over $10 million to date, but saw only mixed results in the races that it invested in. Lessig's sure the public can be rallied, but admits that it's a long road. “I’m in the camp of people who think it’s not quite fair to criticize” people who wonder what reason there is to vote. He said, “I think it’s pretty reasonable for people not to engage in a system like this.”

In 2008, Lessig told me, the non-profit Rock the Vote helped achieve the highest turnout of 18-29 year old voters in America history. Two years later, it found that young people weren’t planning to vote at nearly the same rate. Midterms typically see far lower turnout than presidential elections, but Lessig spotted something else creeping in: the realization that “no matter who wins, corporate interests will still have too much power and prevent real change.” He told me, “People recognize that there isn’t efficacy to their participation in the context where so much is driven by factors that young people don’t have any power, like money.”

The sense of optimism that helped Barack Obama coast to victory in 2008 had something to do with a generational turn, and a self-confidence among the electorate: this country where slavery was once legal could elect a black man. But many who bought into the workings of democracy in 2008 now feel burnt out. "I've described American democracy as a Boss Tweed democracy," Lessig told me, where the Boss's posture is "I don't care who does the electing as long as I do the nominating." Mr. Moneybags gets to limit the voter's choice. The ultra rich—who hold a higher share of the national pie than they have in almost a century—are wise to this, and, as Robert Reich wrote yesterday, have been spending on politics even faster than their wealth is growing. 

A study published this spring by professors at Princeton and Northwestern concluded that the U.S. is something less than a true democracy. As the paper put it, “economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while average citizens and mass-based interest groups have little or no independent influence.”  In our country of 310 million, it’s only 0.21% of the population that gives more than $200 in distributions. A regular person, up against a small handful of mega-millionaire megadonors and their influence, can feel like their vote means nothing. Money buys sway, and has the fringe benefit of buying disengagement. This drives the Reverend William Barber—a celebrated political activist and the president of the North Carolina chapter of the NAACP—up a wall. It makes a nonvoter, he says, into a "double negative—you take a vote from a candidate who will work with you and you give a vote to a candidate who won’t work with you. You’re not just losing one vote, you’re losing two.”

Among Democrats, a consensus has built that the government-doesn’t-work argument is the single most potent weapon of their opponents. In this election, the Democrats certainly suffered from their own failure of "messaging." 

Rev. Barber believes that the Democrats pretty much shot themselves in the foot in this race, managing to depress the vote, by which they only hurt themselves. This race, he told me, has been "just about the president," with Republicans boasting, “I’m not Obama” and Democrats replying, “Well, me neither.” I could practically hear him shake his head. "With the Democratic opponent never saying, ‘I stand with the president on raising the minimum wage, I stand with the president on women's rights, why don’t you stand with the president?'—when you lead by political polls rather than your principles—you actually depress the vote. You need to run campaigns on a clear strong message, not a clear strong here’s what you’re running from.”

As David Axelrod, a former advisor to Obama and former President Bill Clinton, wryly observed in Washington: “If you spend billions of dollars telling everyone that everything sucks, then they won’t vote.” The image of the government as ineffective hurt Obama; Clinton said in Little Rock just this Saturday, “It always hurts the Democrats, since we want to do something, if people have no confidence in government.” Incoming Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell capitalized on this. It's evident, too, in ads for many of his fellow Republicans, which denounced the problematic rollout of Obamacare, the Department of Veterans Affairs' woes, the ISIS beheadings and Putin’s unchecked swagger in the Ukraine. And while that helped turn many voters against the Democrats, it at the same time turned many voters off from voting. Which is the current catch-22.

I asked Larry Lessig what he would say if a person came to him the night before Election Day and said, “I’m not going to vote, because my vote doesn’t matter.”

 “I understand the feeling,” Lessig said, “and it might be true.” “I think there’s an act of faith in something like a democracy and we have to practice it.”

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misstated the date of the 2014 midterm elections.

(Corrects date of midterm elections in first graf.)
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