(From the November 1998 issue of The Free Market)
Big media outlets are ignoring the quiet revolution that is taking place across America. Politicians don't talk too much about it for obvious reasons. This revolution is building incredible momentum. It now threatens the legitimacy of every level of government, the viability of government management of society, and the credibility of career politicians, assuming someone still has any faith in them.
Tens of millions of Americans have stopped voting. No, they're not lazy. No, they're not irresponsible. No, they are not indifferent or even apathetic. They are quietly protesting a fraudulent system and no longer see any advantage to taking part. They're making a revolution through inaction.
Big media outlets dismiss them as fools. But people who have given up on voting are anything but fools. They're actually sharp people who can see a disguised fraud. They're Americans who are fed up with a government that taxes, regulates, and controls their lives while offering up voting as a means of convincing people they are doing it to themselves.
Mostly, non-voters are Americans who no longer believe that voting, or even the right to vote, amounts to much. They believe that it's a charade, a game they will no longer play. They no longer want to go through the motions of believing things like Bush's "No New Taxes" pledge or Clinton's promise to cut middle-class taxes. These disgruntled former voters have learned that the rules of the game have been fixed by the ruling elites, who shut out popular opinion while piously telling us to vote and saying how much they love democracy.
They say people who don't vote can't complain about the outcome. But they also say that if your candidate didn't win, you can't complain because that's being a sore loser. You also can't complain if the guy you voted for does something you don't like. Hey, you voted for him, didn't you? You can't win. The game is rigged.
Perhaps 1994 was the last gasp of hope the public will ever utter in politics. That year, a new Republican Congress was voted in on the promise to dismantle the regime. The promise sounded vaguely plausible. After all, wasn't Reagan stymied by a Democratic Congress? But here we sit four years later, and government is bigger, richer, and more powerful than ever. With mid-term elections coming up, who can take seriously Newt Gingrich's newest plan to cut taxes?
What this experience underscores is that campaigns are merely the art of manipulating popular opinion to the benefit of the elites. It's now an American tradition that all is forgotten after election day. Hey, if both parties do it, to whom is the voter going to complain?
Hasn't there always been a fair number of people in this republic who declined to pick one band of pirates over another? Yes, and, in fact, it's an American tradition. When the first popular election for president was held in 1824, the turnout of eligible voters was about 27 percent. This was despite a franchise that frequently restricted voting rights to property holders and heads of households.
In the early 19th century, non-participation did not reflect indifference; it reflected the small role that politics played in people's lives. Politicians, even presidents, did not hold the fate of the nation in their hands. In any case, people were not voting on what the laws should be or what the government should do (all that was settled by the Constitution), but on the very narrow question of who should hold a largely powerless office.
As the franchise was expanded throughout the century, and statism grew along with it, voter participation increased. There were suddenly big issues to decide. Would there be a tariff or an income tax? Would the U.S. be one nation or two or more? Would there be a national bank? Would the U.S. enter into foreign military conflicts? With such questions roiling the American electorate, and the appearance of self government still intact, voter participation increased to 70 and 80 percent.
But that kind of naivete didn't last long. After World War I, and the revelation that big government was being run by a tiny industrial oligarchy, the newly empowered voter developed a new and sophisticated consciousness of his real place in the scheme of things. He began to believe that his much ballyhooed power was largely mythical. By 1924, turnout had plummeted to 40 percent from its high at the turn of the century.
As Walter Lippman said of these years in "The Phantom Citizen," regarding the views of the average private citizen: "Rules and regulations continually, taxes annually, and wars occasionally remind him that he is being swept along by great drifts of circumstance.... They are managed, if they are managed at all, in distant centers, from behind the scenes by unnamed powers. As a private person he does not know for certain what is going on, or who is doing it, or where he is being carried."
"In the cold light of experience, he knows that his sovereignty is a fiction. He reigns in theory, but in fact he does not govern. Contemplating himself and his actual accomplishments in public affairs, contrasting the influence he exerts with the influence he is supposed according to democratic theory to exert, he must say of his sovereignty what Bismarck said of Napoleon III: `at a distance it is something, but close to, it is nothing at all.'"
After the 1920s, war and depression got people newly interested in politics, so by 1960, turnout was up again to 63 percent of the voting age population. But the promise of government management flopped again, and voting has declined ever since. With the election of 1996, we reached levels alarming for those who vainly try to convince Americans that the system is worthwhile. And the numbers seem to show no signs of reversal. It is a trend of "30 years of progressively dampening interest in American politics," according to Curtis Gans, a veteran observer of voting patterns.
Consider this: In the last presidential election, only 49 percent of the voting age population turned out. That was the lowest presidential voting numbers since 1924, according to the Center for the Study of the American Electorate. So far this year, about 19.6 percent of the eligible electorate voted in the primaries, which is a drop of about three percent from four years ago.
A U.S. Senate candidate in New York, Mark Green, recently moaned that only "one in six registered Democrats" will show up for his party's primary this fall. Mark, your posters may clutter our neighborhoods, but the people aren't falling for the tripe you and the other Democrats (and Republicans) feed a declining number of voters.
Gans said the off-year elections could produce the lowest turnout in American history. The American people are taking a "who cares?" attitude toward whether the GOP retains control of Congress or the Democrats regain it, not because of indifferentism but because of a sense of powerlessness.
Let's look at that 49 percent of registered voters who turned out in 1996, a presidential election year. Bill Clinton won 49 percent of the votes of those who bothered to show up. That means Clinton was re-elected as president by about 24 percent of Americans older than 18.There are military dictators and Teamsters Union presidents who have had a better mandate than that! It's not only disgust in government and politics that keeps people away. It's also the knowledge-the conviction-that their vote makes effectively no difference. It is one of 100 million, and its value declines by the year. If you have a friend who plans to vote opposite you, you can both stay home.
Why is the vote worth less and less? Dilution of voter power, for one thing. The franchise was once restricted to people who had the strongest stake in liberty. But today, everyone has a right to vote, even people whose only interest is to vote more transfers for themselves. The voting age was lowered so that people who could be drafted to fight foreign wars could also say "yes" to the politicians who were killing them.
Thanks to the advent of the teen vote, we are subjected to MTV's "Rock the Vote" campaigns, with illiterates telling illiterates whom to vote for and why. This reality is demoralizing.
Does the number of voters per office make a difference? Certainly. In the most populous state, California, with nearly 23 million potential voters, only 44 percent showed up to the polls in 1996. However, Alaska, with half a million voters, managed to get 57 percent out to vote; similarly, Montana, mustered a 62 percent turnout rate.
If the elites really wanted to boost turnout, then there's one answer: make voting a privilege. Make it worth more. But of course doing that would cut into the whole mythology of the modern state, which is that it rules on everyone's behalf, without discriminating for or against anyone or anything. That's democracy. It's also a lie.
The promise of this informal Don't Vote movement is large. Government's small remaining credibility will waste away. Without credibility, there's no legitimacy, and then factors like authority and respect for government in general fall like dominos. There will be no more "mandate." If politicians can't claim it, they can't act on it. Their power to manipulate us is reduced. All to the good.
Then the average person might start to have his consciousness raised about the huge chasm that separates his interests from those of the ruling elite. He might question why the U.S. government takes nearly half his income, regulates huge swatches of the economy, tosses money around the globe with abandon, imposes sanctions on a dozen countries, and starts unwinnable wars. He will realize that mass democracy, and his participation in it, is what allows the political class to claim there is consensus for their rule.
The President and the members of Congress who won in 1996 were elected by a declining minority of American voters (many of whom probably held their noses when they voted). Despite making voting requirements easier and easier over the past 30 years, despite foolish suggestions from some that non-voters be penalized, the supposed problem has become worse.
Politicians refuse to state the obvious: the vast majority of Americans hate politics and have better things to do. They see the present venal system as one in which candidates are reduced to caricatures who play to the lowest common denominator. They insult voters' intelligence with inane ads asking us to trust people we don't know. During the silly election season, the average voter, after reading this barrage of plaudits in brochures, mailings, and ads, is all but urged to nominate the candidate for the first opening in the Blessed Trinity.
Meanwhile, more and more Americans will let the political mountebanks on the Potomac know that we are smarter, much smarter than they think. We will not play a rigged game. We will ignore their ads. We will hit the mute button when these political hyenas come on the boob tube. We will trash their leaflets, brochures, and other cockamamie concoctions.
We will walk faster when these political gods, accompanied by their well-paid sycophants, deign to put in an appearance on our streets. And, most of all, we will not pay homage to the leviathan the first week in November. Then the "mandate" to plunder the American people will become the stuff of history.
Gregory Bresiger is a writer living in Kew Gardens, New York.
Note: The views expressed on Mises.org are not necessarily those of the Mises Institute.