30 April 2014

Is the Democratic majority Unreliable?

Two years after everyone predicted that demographic trends assured Democrats victory in the present and future presidential elections, most people anticipate a Republican landslide in this fall's congressional elections, including a GOP takeover of the Senate that would render President Obama the lamest of ducks. While some may blame the gerrymandered drawing of congressional district for the failure of the Democrats' presidential majority to reproduce itself at the congressional level, Sasha Issenberg suggests in The New Republic that the real problem isn't with the congressional map, but with Democratic voters. Reporting on recent research in patterns, Issenberg divides the electorate into "Reflex" and "Unreliable" voters based on turnout in congressional elections. The research suggests that a disproportionate number of Democratic presidential voters are "Unreliable," failing to vote in the midterms, while the Republicans have a disproportionate number of "Reflex" voters who go to the ballot every time. Hence Democratic success in Presidential elections is checked by Republican success in the midterms.

Since The New Republic is a Democratic-leaning magazine, Issenberg is kind in accounting for the Unreliability of Democratic voters. Rather than suggest that for some reason only the Presidency matters to them, or that they somehow fail to understand how a government of checks and balances works, Issenberg cites socioeconomic factors. The young people and minorities who form great parts of the Obama coalition are more mobile or more subject to displacement, while Republicans tend to be more settled property owners. Mobility supposedly makes it a chore to re-register every time you move, though somehow these people manage to be registered when the Presidency's at stake. Mobility also means that local issues, and thus local elections, may not matter as much to theoretically transient people than they do to long-term property owners. Even if they think nationally rather than locally, however, Democrats should recognize the national importance of congressional elections, and if they can register to vote in presidential elections, even if they've only recently moved, they should be able -- and, more importantly, willing -- to register as soon as they settle in someplace new, so they can vote in the next election. There must be more plain apathy or ignorance involved in these numbers that Issenberg is willing to acknowledge, and that should embarrass Democrats everywhere.

As it turns out, the Democratic party is working hard to turn Unreliables into Reflex voters. Here Issenberg's account takes a slightly disturbing turn. One successful tactic Democratic canvassers have applied, following the advice of two Yale professors, is to use subtle forms of intimidation.  They've "achieved even more striking results by sending out letters that threaten to distribute neighbors' vote histories before and after Election Day," Issenberg notes. Testing similar tactics, another get-out-the-vote group waged a direct-mail campaign inviting people to vote but adding, "You may be called after the election to discuss your experience at the polls." Faced with the possibility that they might have to explain to someone why they didn't vote -- in Issenberg's words, the campaign was "testing the potential of a new concept -- self-integrity -- by threatening accountability for potential voters who valued civic engagement," -- more people voted. Turnout increased by more than 50% in the test group of people who received the letter.

This is very subtle psychological intimidation that doesn't really rise to the level of coercion. It can be called pressure, however, and it raises the question whether people should be pressured to vote. The answer depends on how you define democracy -- whether it's rule by the people who choose to vote, or whether its very legitimacy depends on everyone voting, or as close to everyone as we can manage. On some level it's a choice between quality and quantity: whether the measures described result in better-informed voters may matter less than assumption of responsibility for the country's (or the community's) future.  Whether a citizen in a democratic republic has a right to be apathetic, complacent or acquiescent that is violated by such tactics is open to question -- in a democratic republic, the question might even be decided by popular vote. However you decide that question, let's agree that it's pretty sad that such measures have to be taken at a time when, as the poet says, some of the worst people vote with passionate intensity, while those who know better can't be bothered even to vote for Democrats consistently, much less rally to some new party more deserving of their support.


Anonymous said...

The thing here is that we love to talk about the "rights" we have due to democracy, but most people forget about the responsibility we have in keeping that democracy healthy.

Something that perhaps no one is considering is simply Democratic voters don't trust the politicians running for senate or assembly and so don't vote.

Samuel Wilson said...

Does it follow that for some reason they trust presidential candidates more? They may, but I'd wonder why.

Anonymous said...

Not necessarily. It could be as simple as they perceive the President as having more power, so as long as they keep the conservative out of the whitehouse, the left is "ruling".

Samuel Wilson said...

If so we're back to the idea that they don't understand the American political process, since the House, not to mention a GOP quorum in the Senate, have proven quite capable of thwarting a Democratic President. And what do these people do after 2016 if, as seems likely in our cyclical system, a Republican becomes President? If that doesn't motivate them to vote in congressional elections, I don't know what could.