Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Voter Participation and a Paradox of Democracy

Voter participation in US presidential elections is about 60% of those eligible to vote. In off-year elections turnout drops to about 40%. The failure of so many to participate has been almost universally viewed as a type of democratic disease—clearly a sign of ill health in our society. There are dissenting voices that take a contrarian view, one that sees these nonvoters not as nonparticipants, but as valued contributors.

Bill Bishop discussed this issue in his book The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America Is Tearing Us Apart. Bishop is concerned with partisanship and polarization in politics. He refers to findings by Paul Lazerfeld that date back to the 1940s.

"He discovered that partisans voted with certainty and with enthusiasm, while those who were tugged by both sides were less likely to cast ballots."

This conclusion is both intuitively obvious and confirmed by many studies. But what are the potential problems with this situation? Bishop quotes Lazerfeld:

"Extreme interest goes with extreme partisanship and might culminate in rigid fanaticism that could destroy democratic processes if generalized throughout the community....lack of interest by some people is not without its benefits...."

Bishop contributed his thoughts on the matter.

"Having a good number of people who do not care much about politics was just as vital to democratic government as having the voting booths filled with eager supporters of both sides. Indifferent citizens leavened the system, gave it suppleness, just what the partisan personality lacked. Apathy gave politicians room to maneuver, compromise, make deals, smother grease on the gears of representative democracy. Having people who didn’t give a flip about politics helped hold society together and cushioned the nation from the shock of disagreement and change."

Bishop has described studies that have determined that in groups of the like-minded opinions will become amplified and more extreme. By our voting patterns, our society is about a third Democrat, a third Republican, and a third indifferent or undecided. In a perfectly mixed society, a partisan who expresses an opinion is then most likely to not receive positive feedback from the recipient of that opinion. He may receive negative feedback which is not likely to change his mind, but it at least will not amplify his original expression. Now consider the same person surrounded by people who share his views. He will receive nothing but positive feedback and will feel even more convinced of the righteousness of his position.

What Bishop and Lazerfeld seem to be saying is that the indifferent and the undecided add a bit of viscosity to our political system that helps inhibit the unimpeded growth of extreme positions.

Can we think of societies that consisted almost entirely of partisans? How about Europe after the Reformation? It seems everyone had to be either Catholic or Protestant. The result was decades of Protestants and Catholics killing each other. A more current example might be the Middle Eastern countries where essentially all are Muslims, but some are Sunnis and some are Shiites. There seems to be no acceptable middle ground and violence, repression and discrimination seem to be the results—not a situation one would like to emulate.

Bishop’s thesis is that we are losing that moderating influence by collecting ourselves into tribes of people with similar lifestyles and similar beliefs—our desire to be surrounded by people "just like us." He documents how our beliefs are becoming more polarized as we proceed through "The Big Sort."

While we are not quite like the Sunnis and Shiites yet, The Big Sort is still underway and we don’t know where our polarized politics is leading us. Meanwhile, we should probably be more appreciative of those who are indifferent and of those who can’t quite make up their minds.

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