July 13, 2003
The Vanishing Voter (Patterson)

The Vanishing Voter
Public Involvement In An Age Of Uncertainty

(by Thomas E. Patterson)

I tend to judge the value of a book by the number of post-it flags decorating the pages after I've finished reading it.

In this 186-page book, I stuck 55 flags.

It's more than just, "Why Won't Johnny Vote?" the book covers the 20th century history of primary election reform, voting patterns in the UsofA compared to those in democracies around the world, the realignment of special interests toward the Democrat and Republican parties as they exist today, the evolution of special interest group politics, campaign finance laws, "attack" politics, voter suppression, and a host of other fascinating topics, all in a simple, clear, non-partisan style.

This is no casual stab at the problem of declining voter turn-out; it's a comprehensive examination of voter discontent.

I donít want to spoil the ending for you, so I won't tell you if there's identifiable, quantifiable reasons why Johnny Won't Vote. Nor will I tell you what such a reason or reasons might be.

Really, I don't know what to tell you that might entice you to read this one. It covers cause and effect. For example, on page 12, the author pointed out that as the overall participation decreased, it meant that "hard-core partisans (the "wing nuts") became an increasingly larger proportion of those voting, which contributed to the more frequent defeat of moderate candidates. In turn, Congr4ss became a more divided and rancorous institution."

I can't refute that and it may well be correct but my own perception of how "centrist" Democrats have become makes me worry about how far to the right the country's body of elected officials have moved to put the current "Left" so close to what was solidly the "Middle" when I was young.

On the other hand, his research also tells us that, had the non-voting voters turned out in 2000, Democrats would have captured the presidency (well, they won the election anyhow, even if they didn't win the "appeal" in the Supreme Court) and both houses of Congress. That means it's people on the Left who are staying home from the voting booths.

Why? Maybe they feel like I do about the current crop of "Democrat" candidates? The Right isn't "winning the country" so much as the Left is failing to retain it.

Patterson does discuss the lack of clear-cut, overreaching issues of the type we faced in the 60s and 70s. With fewer (Democrat) big ticket issues at stake, the Left is unable to energize itself around the smaller issues of today. (I find it a bit embarrassing that the "intellectual" party is so unwilling to unable to put forth the effort it takes to grasp today's critical issues.)

Anyhow, back to the book. On page 54, we learn that, contrary to what most of us seem to believe, politicians do, in fact, deliver on most of the campaign promises.

Four major scholarly studies have compared what modern presidents did in office with what they said as candidates. Each reached the same conclusion: Presidents attempt to fulfill their campaign promises and succeed in achieving most of them. Bill Clinton's performance was about average for postwar presidents. A year before his first term ended, he had delivered on two-thirds of his 1992 campaign promises and had pursued half the rest only to lose out in Congress.
Reading this book, I can see that while there are plenty of shenanigans going on in politics, politicians are neither so venal nor so unreliable as many of us believe.

Oh, forget it. Of course I'm going to tell you.

Aside from the influence of special interest groups, voter suppression, the lack of grand, party-unifying issues, poorly designed campaign "reform," and other issues, Why Won't Johnny Vote?

It's the media, dummy.

The media learned to distrust what politicians told them during the Nixon Administration and clear, objective coverage of politics in this country has been vanishing, along with the voters, ever since.

The media also became addicted to the star-power of scandal-fueled ratings. They came to see themselves as the story, instead of the issues and people they were covering. Getting their "big break" became everything to them. They all want to be the next Woodward and Bernstein and you donít' get there by plodding along, doing your job every day. You need a scandal, a big scandal.

While this does the some good in ferreting out actual misdoings (Iran-Contra), it's also true that, deprived of any actual scandal, the press becomes petty and petulant. They're the stars, don't the politicians know that? They, the Almighty Press, need to be courted and wooed and pampered, or, by gosh, those politicians are going to take a fall.

(What, after all, were the lies and exaggerations that plagued Gore except the huffy tantrums of reporters who didnít' think there were being treated with the proper reverence?)

As Patterson points out, journalists also spend more time talking about the news than they do covering it.

When was the last time you heard or read an extended, uninterrupted excerpt from a speech in a major news outlet instead of "quotes" and "sound bites" surrounded by acres of "commentary?"

(Look at the SotU. There's three times as much "pre-game" and "post-game" coverage as there is speech. And the president, no matter who he is, is lucky with that one. It's one of the few speeches he gives in a year that gets uncut coverage by the media and even then, analysis and commentary start before the applause dies away. Newspapers, and networks demand advance copies of the speech so they can research it and prepare their "spontaneous' remarks in advance. That makes them sound smarter and, not incidentally, gives them the chance to mold voter opinion of the remarks before the voter has a chance to make their own interpretation.)

Okay, it's not just the media, dummy. There's one other major significant factor, and that's the incredibly long, drawn-out campaign timeline, especially for presidential campaigns.

It's well-worth reading Patterson's discussion of how this favors big money candidates over others, and reading his analysis of how public interest in the campaigns waxes, and wanes, during the process. (Of course, It's also worth nothing how said public interest waxes, and wanes, in response to...you guessed it...whether or not the media actually chooses to cover campaign issues at any one time.)

The one thing I questioned was on page 93, when Patterson wrote that it "...is unreasonable to expect the press to shoulder the full burden of an informed public, it is reasonable to expect the press to provide a window on the world of politics that is clear enough to illuminate that world."

My question is, "If not the press, then who? What else is their function except to keep us informed, fully informed, about what's going on?"

Are we really at the point where "news" of some actor's marriage/pregnancy/divorce/arrest for shoplifting is considered of more interest and more importance than what our elected officials, the people with the power to shape our country, are doing?

I am, as usual, appalled.

I'll leave you with a lengthy quote from page 73 of the book. (Emphasis is mine.)

The old journalistic adage, "bad news is good news" had become an imperative. Skepticism had been part of reporting since at least the turn-of-the-century muckraking period. As the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Frank Simonds had said in 1917: "There is but one way for a newspaper man to look at a politician and that is down." But the muckrakers had focused on systemic corruption: the taking of bribes, the exploitation of ethnic and religious prejudice, the unholy alliance between politicians and the business trusts. Modern journalists were tearing into politicians for everything from their clothing to their accessibility. There were larger issues, too, including Iran-contra, the savings-and-loan crisis, and institutional gridlock, but attack journalism had become the domineering style. In 1989, more than a thousand charges of ethical impropriety (sex was the leading category) were leveled at members of Congress on the nightly newscasts. "I feel like bait rather than a senior member of Congress," said a U.S. representative.

Bill Clinton did not even get the "honeymoon" that newly elected presidents had come to expect. His news coverage was 57 percent negative during this first two months on the job. Six months into his presidency, Clinton's numbers were even worse--66 percent negative. According to the press, Clinton was doing almost everything wrong. A series of controversies, including the president's $200 haircut and his "gay sin the military" initiative, had led reports to speak of "amateur hour" at the White House. Some of this criticism was on target, but much of it was not. Clinton's first-year achievements included a deficit-reduction program, a family-leave program, banking reform, NAFTA, a college-loan program, the Brady bill, and AmeriCorps. Since 1953, Congressional Quarterly has tracked congressional backing of legislation on which the president has taken a position. Congress backed Clinton on 88 percent of contested votes in 1993, a level exceeded only twice in the previous forty years--by Dwight Eisenhower in 1953 and Lyndon Johnson in 1965.

Clinton's reward? Enough negative news to power a magneto. But it was no worse than the coverage Congress was getting. The 103rd Congress enacted a score of new programs but failed to pass health-care reform and was called "pathetically unproductive" in a New York Times editorial. Network coverage of the Democratic-led 103rd Congress was nearly 70 percent negative in tone. Network coverage of the Republican-led 104th Congress was also nearly 70 percent unfavorable, despite the historical first one hundred days in which many of the planks in the GOP's Contract with America were fulfilled. A poll during the 1994 election indicated that 97 percent of Washington journalists regarded the contract as "a campaign ploy." When it turned out to be something quite different, they criticized Republicans for trying to ram it too quickly through Congress.

Coverage of national politics was so downbeat that it distorted Americans' sense of reality. A 1996 survey asked respondents whether the trend in inflation, unemployment, crime, and the federal budget deficit had been upward or downward during the past five years. There had been substantial improvement in all of these problem areas, but two-thirds of the respondents said in each case that things had gotten worse. What could explain such widespread ignorance except the cumulative effect of daily news that highlighted the failings of national policy and leadership?

Politicians, no doubt, also contributed mightily to the public's perception that government wasn't working. Conservative lawmakers were consciously seeking to drive down confidence in government in order to create support for their effort to roll back federal economic and social programs. For their part, liberal lawmakers found fit to attack government over issues that dealt with the regulation of personal conduct. The gap between these sides was often so wide that lawmakers in the middle had no hope of filling it, which fed the growing perception that government was bogged down in partisan bickering and policy deadlock.

I know I always say this about the books I read (Well, I wouldn't buy them if I didn't think they were going to be educational and informative, would I?), but you really should read this one and consider what Patterson has to say.

Posted by annezo at 10:54 AM

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