03 November 2015

The cartoon electorate

My local paper ran a cartoon on its editorial page this morning showing a mass of people divided into two disproportionate segments, representing the third of the voting-age population who actually voted in recent elections and the two-thirds majority that didn't vote. The majority shout with one voice: we don't vote because it doesn't make a difference! The cartoonist hoped to show the absurdity of the claim; the majority so outnumbers the voting minority that their potential to make a difference is self-evident, their refusal to recognize that potential self-defeating. But the cartoon itself is absurd. Can those two-thirds of the potential electorate make a difference in determining who appears on a November ballot? They might be forgiven for thinking little of their power to decide whether the Democrat or the Republican gets in this time when what they really want is something else entirely. If they're to be faulted, it should be for not knowing how to get around the party system and elect someone whom they, rather than a party, nominate. Too many are thwarted by the mere sight of a ballot and its implication that the state has decided whom you can choose from. Of course you can write in any other name, but few feel confident that others will do likewise, and any little rebellion feels pretty futile in the solitude of the voting booth. We're supposed to have a representative democracy, the democratic part being the election, but how democratic is it when the state sets the terms candidates must meet to have even the pretense of equality on the ballot? What right has the state -- practically speaking, a partisan legislature -- to set deadlines for filing or quotas of signatures for candidates, especially in our time when, in theory, a flash-mob candidacy could sweep the country, not to mention smaller constituencies, in a weekend? What kind of democracy are we, in our vaunted openness of authority to challenges, when the most popular "insurgent" or "outsider" candidates still must seek legitimacy through one of the major parties, and in doing so are pressured to renounce any right to continue their campaigns independently? In a real democracy the majority should be able to decide at any time that they've had enough of such a system and abolish it. And those who would remind me of the Constitution should recall that our charter of government was not designed to enable political parties to consolidate power, that in fact the Framers hoped to prevent such a result before some of them found parties useful. When people throughout the country say they're sick of both parties yet can't find a way to do away with them, you can blame the people if you like but you have to blame the system, too. Bipolarchy -- the codependent cohabitation of genuinely opposed but fundamentally consensual parties --  has usurped democracy in America, and apparently it was all legal. So what can the two-thirds majority do? They haven't figured out how to beat the system, and probably wouldn't all agree on what to replace it with, and since it apparently was all legal, they'd probably and understandably feel antsy about reclaiming democracy through force. So what does that leave us with? They're still there and they can still make a difference, but a cartoonist who chides them simply for not voting in a two-party election probably should be careful of what he wishes for.

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