You may have heard there’s an election coming up. If the pundits are to be believed, this episode of American Politics (the reality show) will decide the future of the free world. The very fate of democracy hangs in the balance! This could be the year that we at last throw off our chains, or else descend into the pit of darkness and misery that is the inevitable result of checking the incorrect boxes on your ballot.
Then again, they say that every couple years, and the average lives of ordinary Americans are not drastically changed in one direction or the other, regardless of the outcomes in November. It’s almost as if the whole circus is manufactured to sell ads on news stations or something.
Tangent to the alarmism and hyperbole that accompany each election cycle is the “get out the vote” crowd. They are convinced, in the absence of evidence, that more people voting will create better electoral outcomes.
To their credit, voter turnout in the United States is laughable. Only about half of eligible voters make it to the polls in a presidential election cycle, and it gets worse the further you drift from The Big One. Midterms only garner 40% turnout. Primaries, where the real decisions are usually made, do well to get 10% of voters to the ballot box. And all that ignores the first step in the process, the money primary, in which a tiny fraction of a percent of Americans choose who we get to vote for in the first place. Don’t even get me started on local elections and issues.
All this seems like a huge problem, right? If only small fractions of our population are choosing decision-makers at all levels of government, how can we seriously claim to have anything like representative democracy? Well, we can’t. But that’s not the biggest problem we face in America when it comes to our government.
What Do We Really Want?
While it is desirable to have legislative bodies that proportionally reflect the socioeconomic and demographic groups that make up the constituency, it is infinitely more important to have a government that actually works.
And ours, well, doesn’t. In fact it has become so catastrophically bad at everything that we’ve become callous to it. A defense program goes decades long and billions of dollars over-budget? Oh well. A landmark piece of legislation with “affordable” in the name does nothing to make anything more affordable? To be expected. Congress doesn’t pass a budget for a couple decades? Well, that’s just how Washington works. Or doesn’t work.
The litany of ineptitude in our nation’s capital and in statehouses across the country is exceeded in absurdity only by our propensity to send the same people back to elected office, time and time again. Congress maintains a mere 20% approval rating, and yet incumbents enjoy a 95% reelection rate.
What in the actual hell, America?
The obvious explanation for this insanity is that the majority of people who vote aren’t making thoughtful decisions, aren’t involved in enough of the electoral process to make a meaningful difference, and aren’t paying enough attention to realize why things are the way that they are. In short, we have an apathetic, lazy, stupid, inept government because that’s who’s doing the electing.
The Liability of Unqualified Suffrage
The “get out the vote” crowd believes that the answer to this is to beg more people to vote. But if the problem with our government is a brain-dead voter base, how are we going to improve that situation by encouraging more people to vote who don’t actually care?
The truth is that the push to make people go register and vote who’d rather spend election night yelling at the football man on the big screen at BW3s will make our elections worse, not better. They will further dilute the mean political IQ of the voting base, which is already somewhere around room temperature.
The consequences of an unqualified electorate couldn’t be more clear. For all the hand-wringing and finger-pointing about Russian interference in the 2016 election cycle, nobody seems willing to state the obvious. To the best of anyone’s knowledge, Russia did not cast a single vote. They did produce a whole lot of hilariously bad media to try and support their guy.
That’s annoying, but it would have been completely ineffective if the average American voter were capable of a shred of critical, intelligent thought. All the twitterbots and fake news and Trump-riding-a-bear memes wouldn’t have made a dent in an election where the voters cared enough to pay sober attention to what they were doing.
Let me be clear: The Russians didn’t hack the 2016 election. They hacked stupid, gullible people who then went and cast votes on Russia’s behalf. To the degree that we believe the Russians influenced the outcome of the election, we must also believe that percentage of the electorate is unqualified to responsibly exercise their right to vote.
That this situation is even possible isn’t Russia’s fault. It’s ours, for granting the franchise to anybody with a pulse, and then begging and pleading for people to go vote who probably have no business making decisions for the most powerful nation on the planet.
But the losing side in 2016 isn’t upset that the electorate is so easily deceived. No, they’re only mad because they were deceived by someone else’s message, rather than their own. An unqualified constituency is great for entrenched power, and so rather than work to fix the underlying issue, they’ll affix the blame to somebody else and do nothing.
Stop. Rocking. My Vote.
Encouraging voter registration among the apathetic is a feel-good campaign at best, and at worst a counterproductive strategy for the success of our republic. Like the “Just Say No” strategy in the drug war in the 1980s, or the “thoughts and prayers” we sent to Puerto Rico last year, it gives us the illusion of doing something good, without all that messy effort of actually, you know, doing something.
The trouble with democracy, as French philosopher Joseph-Marie de Maistre wrote in 1811, is that the people get the leaders they deserve. The Founders understood this, which is why they crafted rules to grant the franchise to those who, given the standards of the day, could be reasonably expected to make sound decisions for the future of the country.
That we find the qualifications they prescribed (white male landowners) deplorable by today’s standards does not diminish the severity of the problem they were trying to avoid. Our wholesale expansion of suffrage to just about everybody is admirable in concept, but fraught with problems in actuality. What’s needed is a very serious conversation about who should do the electing in a country of 325 million people, and a set of rules that will create a more responsible, engaged, and intelligent voting base.
That such a set of rules would dramatically shrink the rolls of eligible voters goes without saying. That’s irksome on the face of it, but when you consider that only a tiny fraction of Americans are choosing our leaders under our current system, and that they are able to do so specifically because of the ease with which American voters are swayed, the objections fall apart. If we want a government that functions, our first priority should be an electorate that functions. All other considerations, while noble, must remain secondary.
But this sort of challenging and nuanced discourse is no longer our strong suit in America. It is my hope that within my lifetime, we may regain the capability to talk reasonably about complicated things. But in the meantime, please do me a favor. If you have to be persuaded by a social media platform to go get signed up to vote, do the responsible thing and just stay home.