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The Learned Helplessness of the American Voter

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