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Voting and Democracy

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Whenever the people are well-informed, they can be trusted with their own government, that, whenever things get so far wrong as to attract their notice, they may be relied on to set them right.

--Thomas Jefferson

There is a most disturbing essay in the New Yorker magazine this week.  Louis Menand has entitled his polemic, "Fractured Franchise: Are the Wrong People Voting?"  I have to admit that I have had some serious misgivings about some of the voters in this country, but then, like most of the rest of us, I realize that universal suffrage is the bedrock of any democracy.  Still, there may be, as Jefferson suggests, a condition that must be met.  Should not one be capable of rational thought?  Should not this have to be demonstrated in public school, and if not attained then the franchise not be conferred? Menand notes that the Economics professors at George Mason University are probably right in their anguish over the question of voting.  He describes the appalling lack of understanding in the voting public about things that any sixth-grader should have committed to memory.

The political knowledge of the average voter has been tested repeatedly, and the scores are impressively low. In polls taken since 1945, a majority of Americans have been unable to name a single branch of government, define the terms "liberal" and "conservative," and explain what the Bill of Rights is. More than two-thirds have reported that they do not know the substance of Roe v. Wade and what the Food and Drug Administration does. Nearly half do not know that states have two senators and three-quarters do not know the length of a Senate term. More than fifty per cent of Americans cannot name their congressman; forty per cent cannot name either of their senators. Voters' notions of government spending are wildly distorted: the public believes that foreign aid consumes twenty-four per cent of the federal budget, for example, though it actually consumes about one per cent.

from the issuecartoon banke-mail thisEven apart from ignorance of the basic facts, most people simply do not think politically. They cannot see, for example, that the opinion that taxes should be lower is incompatible with the opinion that there should be more government programs. Their grasp of terms such as "affirmative action" and "welfare" is perilously uncertain: if you ask people whether they favor spending more on welfare, most say no; if you ask whether they favor spending more on assistance to the poor, most say yes. And, over time, individuals give different answers to the same questions about their political opinions. People simply do not spend much time learning about political issues or thinking through their own positions. They may have opinions-if asked whether they are in favor of capital punishment or free-trade agreements, most people will give an answer-but the opinions are not based on information or derived from a coherent political philosophy. They are largely attitudinal and ad hoc.

Let's take it for granted, then, that Americans really do not understand governance, much less politics.  Is this a fatal flaw, or is there something we can do about it?  Shouldn't we admit, finally, that the history of political thinking in America has not changed markedly over the past two hundred years, only the population has expanded from 4 millions to 300 millions, accounting, therefore, for the vastly larger population of morons for survey takers to interview!

If you Google "Thomas Jefferson on education," one of the first hits is the first part of the quotation at the beginning of this essay—only the first part.  One has to dig a little deeper into Google to get the second clause, the one about being informed.  Jefferson, then, saw the question of qualification for voting in terms of two separate issues: education in the first place, and information thereafter.

As to education, "no child left behind" begs a serious question, namely, behind what?  The group?  The standards?  The ability to think rationally?  Obviously, if Americans are as stupid about political thinking as Menand thinks they are, they have been left behind.  They have been conned into thinking that education is something for children and then you just coast on in to homebase over the course of the next fifty to seventy years.  Obviously, education is deficient and "obviously" standards are too low.  There is something we can do about both of these and associating the franchise with graduation from (improved) high schools (or G.E.D. systems) might be a worthy consideration.  It certainly is not inconsistent with the existing laws that remove the franchise from those convicted of felonies.

But, the lesser quoted clause of Jefferson's statement about education is about The People taking action when they find out that things are amiss.  Finding out that things are amiss is a function of "lifelong education" and the means to this is primarily the news media.  Here, you see, we have a major problem.  We, understanding the corrupting influence of monopoly, have nevertheless allowed media corporations to dominate the news business, so we have Fox and others promulgating complete nonsense to unwary, under-educated citizens, who then believe they are informed, when in fact they are not.  This brings us to a conclusion about education and voting and staying informed.

The alternative to pure democracy—town meeting democracy—is representative democracy as practiced and defines a republic.  With a population of 300 million we have no choice but a republican form of national government.  We must elect people to represent our interests.  Now, though, we have the superimposition of corporate news into the mix.  The decision of what constitutes news is made for us.  It is made for us by leaders of media corporations and their brothers who pay for advertising in the media.  In other words, we have a situation where corporations have a bottlenecked information to an "educated electorate" so that regardless of the quality of that education the electorate is informed only with what corporations want.

The threat of corporatism is that eventually the representatives of the people are selected according to criteria that are meaningless and so far distant from the real issues of the day, criteria established by the corporations, of course, so that when elected the corporations tell them the representatives what they want to happen, and it does.  There are even people in the rightwing of politics who think this is a good idea because it gets rid of the voters who cannot be trusted to vote "responsibly."

We are that close to a fascist state, a corporatist form of government de facto, regardless of what we call it or believe in our childish imaginations it to be.  Corporations cannot be trusted to have the best interests of their employees at heart. Corporations do not have hearts!  Corporations (and private equity partnerships) are defined and constrained to profit making.  There is no unseen mystical or miraculous hand at work in the market making profit-taking an exercise in morality!  The object of profit is to reduce costs.  If at some point the cost of raw materials and capital plant are fixed, then the variable that must be reduced is labor ... and labor is people ... and reduced people are not free!  They certainly would not have done that to themselves.

The Menand article raises questions about voter qualifications, a subject that is hot and testy.  When you consider the alternatives it becomes obvious that we must redouble our efforts to regain a balance, to remove monopolies from the media and to demand that the education sector fulfill its mandate to and responsibility for our republic.


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James R. Brett, Ph.D. taught Russian History before (and during) a long stint as an academic administrator in faculty research administration. His academic interests are the modern period of Russian History since Peter the Great, Chinese (more...)

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