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All content © 2002-2005 Anne Zook

December 07, 2003
The Vanishing Voter (Thomas E. Patterson)

Public Involvement In An Age of Uncertainty

I tend to judge the value of a book by the number of Post-It flags that are stuck in the pages when I finish 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 evolution of special interest group politics, the occasional migration of those special interests between the Democrat and Republican parties, campaign financing, "attack" politics, voter suppression, and a host of other fascinating topics. This is not casual stab at the problem of declining voter turnout; it's a comprehensive examination of voter discontent.

I don't want to spoil the ending for you, so I won't tell you if there's a reason Johnny won't vote. Nor will I tell you what such a reason might be.

The problem is, I don't know what to tell you that might entice you to read this one.

Maybe because it covers both cause and effect? For examples, on page 12, the author points out that the overall voter participation decrease means that "hard-core" partisans (the "wingnuts") are becoming an increasingly larger proportion of those voting, which contributes to the more frequent defeat of moderate candidates. In turn, Congress has become "a more divided and rancorous institution."

And yet, as many of us have noticed, today's "centrist" Democrats are far, far to the Right of where the Center was in the not-too-recent past, which tells you that the "wingnuts" coming at us from the Right today really are from the very fringes of our society. (And today's Left is coming from what was the "moderate Left" of my youth.)

Patterson's research also tells us that, had the non-voting voters turned out in 2000, Democrats would have captured the presidency (more than just the popular vote they did win) and both houses of Congress. That tells us that it's 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? (But would we have lost the party had we not first started staying home? The chicken or the egg?)

Patterson attributes this to the lack of clear-cut, overreaching issues of the type the Democratic party faced n the 60s and 70s. With fewer big ticket issues at stake, the Left is unable to energize itself around the smaller issues at stake. Let me say that I disagree. I don't think we lack clear "Democrat" issues today, and I find it a bit embarrassing that the "intellectual" party is so unwilling to put forth the effort it takes to grasp today's critical issues.

Anyhow . . . back to the book . . . on page 54, I learned that, contrary to what most of us seem to believe, most politicians do, in fact, tend to deliver on most of their 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 as venal nor as 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, decreasing bipartisanship, 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, stupid.

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 they 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?"

Anyhow - it's all a war of journalists today and, as I'm sure I've complained repeatedly, we get so much of them and their opinions that there's simply no way to get past them and find out what the actual candidates are like.

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?

There's more, much more to the book than I've discussed. Buy it, or check your local library.

Posted by AnneZook at 09:50 PM


Comments

25th century history? You've been talking to Peter Glavodevedhzhe again, haven't you?

Posted by: Elayne Riggs at December 8, 2003 07:47 AM

I hate when I do that. :)

Thanks for the catch!

Posted by: Anne at December 8, 2003 09:31 AM