As the 1992 election campaign approaches, we're going to hear a lot about the disturbing levels of voter apathy. Voters keep staying away from the polls, and good-government types can't stand it. Turnout is at its lowest point in 70 years; most people seem genuinely uninterested in politics.
Unfortunately, political reformers routinely define apathy as "not voting." While this hypothesis is easy to test (all you have to do is count heads), it ignores the proud tradition of, say, the Constitutional Convention delegates who threatened to walk out unless the document included a Bill of Rights. Sometimes not voting reflects the belief that the lesser of two evils is evil.
People also stay away from the polls for less explicitly principled reasons. Many potential voters see career politicians as an entrenched interest group immune to the will of the electorate. That's why populists call lifelong Democratic and Republican legislators "the Washington Party."
Other nonvoters find ballots cluttered with initiatives they don't understand and office seekers they don't know. These folks may care deeply about the world around them, but they stay home on Election Day.
It's easy to worry about empty ballot boxes. But worrying doesn't mean you'll come up with helpful remedies. Look at what political journalists and Common Cause members tout as The Way to get people excited about politics: campaign reform. (The crowd yawns.)
One proposal, pushed by columnist Charles Krauthammer and The New Republic, among others, would require television networks and local affiliates to set aside blocks of free time for candidates to speak directly to voters. No visual aids. The candidate as talking head.
Defenders of such schemes routinely dredge up Willie Horton and the Reagan campaign's "Morning in America" ad. To them, political debate that evokes emotional responses isn't sophisticated enough. No, you have to make candidates seem like policy wonks. Important issues are too complex for Roger Ailes and John Sasso to manipulate. (Ironically, many of these reformers confess that much of our best political commentary comes from cartoonists .)
Such reforms are red herrings. If your idea of the perfect vacation is watching C-Span around the clock, these plans might sound attractive. But they won't make more people vote; they'll just make them switch to ESPN. And reformers incorrectly assume that electoral politics and voting are all that matters in life—and if you don't agree with their vision, they'll force you (and the networks) to pay for it anyway.
In truth, disturbing trends in the country are emerging. But as some astute observers recognize, these trends only peripherally relate to voting.
A fine new book by Washington Post writer E.J. Dionne explains Why Americans Hate Politics. In part, Dionne identifies a lack of connection between Americans and their political institutions. People see a professional government run by lifetime bureaucrats and conclude, It doesn't matter who gets my vote. Things won't change.
Despite his good reporting, Dionne offers an unconvincing prescription. He wants Americans to form a coalition that he calls "the new center"—which sounds like little more than government run by neoliberals, people who hate bureaucracy but love politics.
You won't find the solution to America's political malaise on "Washington Week in Review." But political activists could learn much from the recent travails of their daily newspapers.
People view newspapers as civic institutions. Papers cover city council meetings and report crimes. But they're also private enterprises driven by the marketplace. Right now, newspapers are struggling. But unlike political pundits, profit-oriented publishers can't afford to sit around and gripe about reader apathy. They have to sell papers. The recession (a depression in the publishing industry) has damaged many newspapers, some fatally. So editors and publishers are testing all kinds of formats and designs to draw in new readers and regain old subscribers.
And they may have inadvertently discovered the way to energize Americans about their institutions: Embrace diversity. This concept of diversity means more than hiring minorities in the newsroom, which is merely another form of nose counting. Diversity means newspapers cover politics—but you also get sports pages, wedding announcements, and "Calvin and Hobbes."
To celebrate diversity you accept people as individuals with differing tastes. At its best, liberal society lets us spend our time doing both the profound and the mundane. It's OK to play softball, work in a homeless shelter, or watch "Cheers."
Reformers correctly see dangers in a society disconnected from its institutions. Our inner cities, for example, are becoming an explosive mix of fear, frustration, and violence. If political activists would stop scolding voters and instead address their concerns, Americans might care more about politics. You don't measure apathy by toting up ballots. And you don't cure political alienation by having Madonna threaten to give nonvoters a spankie.