If recent history is any predictor, more than six in ten eligible voters will stay at home on November 2nd. These paltry participation numbers give new definition to the greatest democracy on earth. The last time more than 40% of us voted in an off year was back in 1970. Even in Presidential contests, 2008’s 56.8% was the highest since 1968 (60%) and it’s been fifty years (JFK vs. Nixon) since we have seen 63%. Contrast that with the 65% who only recently voted in the UK when New Labour was voted out or the almost 78% in 1997 when Tony Blair first came to office. Only 49% of Americans had voted the year before when Clinton beat Bob Dole. 84% of French voters turned out when Nicholas Sarkozy was elected President in 2007.
To put my gloomy assumption about 2010 in some perspective, it’s likely that (given a split electorate) not much more than 20% of us will have voted in the Congress that will be enacting our laws for the next two years. To put it bluntly, thanks to us, our representative government is hardly representative. The next time you hear a legislator pompously say she or he speaks for the American people, remember how few people (their voting constituents) they are really talking about. In this year of anger and rebellion, tokened by the much-hyped Tea Party, it should be noted that their primary victories came from a scant 8% of eligible voters — that’s right, 92% of us had no part in it.
So forget Sarah Palin, Glenn Beck and their patron Rupert Murdoch, what makes my blood boil are the millions of Americans who just can’t engage themselves enough to spend the few minutes it takes to pull a lever or fill out a paper ballot. In his speech before the assembled at the March on Washington, my immigrant-citizen father warned that we must not allow ourselves to be a nation of onlookers. Well, when it comes to exercising our most precious right, onlookers are exactly what we have become. His words in 1963 reflected the experience of someone who had watched the citizenry of his native Germany stand by complacently as their country was overtaken by a murderous totalitarian regime. Not surprisingly, he took both his gained U.S. citizenship, along with the responsibility to vote, seriously teaching his children and grandchildren to do the same.
We’ve all seen the stories lately of Hispanics, African Americans and, most disturbingly, young people who are sitting out this election. Somehow Barack Obama just didn’t live up to their expectations or push their agenda’s hard enough. What a lame, self defeating, if not infantile, reason for not exercising your rights. It isn’t only that our national attention span and patience is that of two year olds, it is that we seem perfectly willing to let a tiny minority determine our destiny, to be onlookers. We like to complain, to say how our elected officials are letting us down, but in fact they are delivering the kind of governance that we deserve, in some cases much more than we deserve. Do Hispanics, our fastest growing group of fellow citizens, really believe that staying home will produce legislators ready at long last to enact progressive immigration laws? With all the talk about burdening the next generation with debt, do young voters really think they have no stake in 2010’s outcome, that voting in 2008 was the total fulfillment of their obligation to the rest of us, not to mention themselves? Enthusiasm gap — give me a break!
Yes these are hard times. Yes it’s difficult to buy into the platitudes that our best years lie ahead when so many people’s personal prospects look so dim. But that’s a reason to engage, not to stay at home. The sixty-plus percent of eligible voters who will be AWOL on November 2nd, are no friends of our future. Their prophecy will be of the self-fulfilling kind, and that’s inexcusable. It’s what makes me really angry two weeks before Election Day.