17 November 2014

The worst are full of passionate intensity: an argument for getting out the vote

Carl Strock, once a columnist for the Schenectady Gazette and now a blogger for the Albany Times Union, is no fan of the Republican party, but when others blame low turnout for the GOP victories this month and wish more people had voted, Strock is skeptical. "I have never considered voting the civic virtue that public figures invariably consider it," he writes, "Maybe knowledgeable voting is a virtue, but voting just for the sake of voting, whether or not you have any idea of who the candidates are and what kind of horse thieves they might be, I’m not sure. It might be just as well that you stay at home if you haven’t made a minimal effort to inform yourself."

This is the sort of rhetoric I expect to hear or read from Republicans. Just as liberals believe that the more people vote, the better for them, Republicans believe the opposite. The GOP argument against maximizing voter turnout is pretty much the same as Strock's: the more people vote, the more ignorance will prevail. Strock is also willing to believe that non-voters have made a conscious if cynical choice, seeing no difference for them in who gets elected, but he still wishes that voting could be made conditional on some sort of intelligence test. Knowing how controversial this idea is, Strock proposes something minimalist and value-free: "Just, what state do you live in? Who is the governor? Which way is up?" But he knows even that would be attacked as implicitly discriminatory, while the more severe partisans would more likely propose more biased tests. Each of the major parties believes the other profoundly ignorant in certain major fields, Democrats presuming Republicans ignorant of science, Republicans presuming Democrats ignorant of economics. Each would love making tests in their own specialized fields of knowledge (or belief) the prerequisite for voting in pursuit of their respective utopias where there's no such thing as an uninformed vote.

Permit me to suggest, for today at least, that our present problem is not so much ignorance -- I presume most Americans were no more conversant with science or economics a century or more ago -- as it is ideological fanaticism. The U.S. is in a Yeatsian state in which, as the poet wrote almost a century ago, "the worst are full of passionate intensity" while most, if not the best, "lack all conviction." Acquiescing in apathy yields the field to the worst of the passionately intense. As for the apathetic, the real hidden majority of the country, however ignorant they may be we can assume that their cynicism will immunize them against the appeals of demagogues and void the oldest argument against maximizing voter turnout. If the hidden majority were compelled to vote -- if they actually have to choose a candidate rather than leave any column blank -- they may simply vote for the least obnoxious candidate, which hopefully would eliminate the most extreme or fanatical rivals. Another possibility is that, in a collective fit of "ignorant" pique, they might choose a third-party candidate to spite the Bipolarchy. If our future is threatened by voting blocs who care to excess, the answer may be simply to swamp them with a majority that doesn't care. But if this idea gives "ignorance" too much voice for your taste -- if you still dream of imposing the perfect test to sort the deserving from the undeserving -- your problem may be not so much with the American electorate or any hidden majority but with democracy itself. I don't mean that as a conversation stopper, since intellectual arguments against democracy can be made, but if those arguments are going to be made we should make clear what we stand for: government by, of and for the people, or something else.

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