The AWOL Electorate

What we can learn from "vanishing voters"


Pieter Brueghel's 16th century painting "The Fall of Icarus" provides a sly commentary on the tale about flying too close to the sun. Rather than being at the center of Brueghel's painting, the overreaching Icarus is visible only as a pair of legs splashing about in the sea. The rest of his body is already out of view and on its way to a watery grave. The real action in the scene is elsewhere: The foreground shows a farmer tilling his soil, a shepherd tending his flock, a fisherman working the coastline—all blithely unaware of and uninterested in Icarus' sinking fortunes. In Brueghel's landscape, the center of attention has shifted from the mythic to the mundane. As William Carlos Williams poetically described it, "There was/A splash quite unnoticed/This was/Icarus drowning."

Odd as it may seem, Brueghel's painting also provides a way of thinking about the 2000 election and one of its defining, though largely unmentioned, characteristics: the country's general and substantial lack of interest in who becomes our next president. These days, politicians—certainly Al Gore and George W. Bush—are seeming more and more like Icarus, while potential voters are acting more and more like Brueghel's farmers and shepherds.

Such disengagement is particularly strange since Campaign 2000 has so many markers of a momentous political occasion: The first national election not simply of a new century but of a new millennium; a two-term vice president of a popular though scandal-ridden administration squaring off against an "outsider" son of a former president; a statistical dead heat in what was shaping up as one of the tightest presidential contests since 1960; and slim majorities in both houses of Congress potentially up for grabs. If we couldn't care about this election, it seems safe to conclude that we won't care about any.

Yet as I write this just a few weeks before November 7, all indications are that Americans are not paying particular attention to the presidential race, even though neither Al Gore nor George Bush has been able to bust beyond the low-to-mid 40s in the polls for some time now.

Why don't we care more who becomes our president, not to mention our senators, our representatives, our dog catchers? More important, are voting-booth no-shows a problem? The folks at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government think so: They've created a "Vanishing Voter Project" to "invigorate the American electoral process." So does the crowd at Rock the Vote, who remind us that "Your vote is your voice" and that "If you don't vote, it's just like voting for the winner." (Sadly, if you vote for the loser, it's still just like voting for the winner.)

Though I always cast a ballot, I'm not quite ready to frown on nonvoters. In fact, those AWOL citizens may even have a lesson to teach those of us who spend much—if not most—of our time thinking about the government and our relationship to it. They remind us that there is a vibrant world apart from and beyond politics. That's something worth remembering, especially in a presidential election season.

To get a handle on our electoral apathy, consider the ratings tally for the first two presidential debates (the third had not yet taken place as of press time). As The Dallas Morning News aptly characterized it, the first debate, held October 3 in Boston, was a "borderline ratings bomb," drawing a paltry 46.6 million viewers. To put that figure in perspective, keep in mind that the first debate between Bill Clinton and Bob Dole in 1996 drew 46.1 million viewers—and that was in a race that was effectively over five minutes before Bob Dole announced his candidacy for the Republican nomination. Worse yet, compare this year's number to the October 13, 1984 debate between Ronald Reagan and Walter Mondale. Even though it came late in an election cycle in which the incumbent almost shut the challenger out in the Electoral College, the Reagan–Mondale debate drew 20 million more viewers than this year's.

The ratings for the second Gore–Bush debate predictably went even further south, plummeting about 20 percent from their first exchange. The vice presidential debate pulled an anemic 28.5 million viewers, the second-lowest total ever according to Nielsen (only the 1996 match-up between Al Gore and Jack Kemp did worse).

The decline in debate viewership is part of a 40-year trend, says Curtis Gans, the director of the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate, a nonprofit that tracks voter engagement and participation. Essentially, Gans told me in a phone interview, it's all been downhill since that first Nixon–Kennedy debate. (Viewed by almost 60 percent of American households with TVs, it remains by far the debate ratings champ.) Although there have been occasional upticks in viewership—the first debate among President Bush, Bill Clinton, and Ross Perot in 1992 provides the most recent example—the real question, Gans says, is not whether the 2000 debates would draw a small audience but just how low the electorate's interest will sink over time.

Gans is betting that the blasé attitudes underlying the debate numbers will translate into relatively few ballots cast in November. Even if there is a slight increase in voter turnout this time around, he argues persuasively that the long-term historical patterns unmistakably trend downward. Indeed, some political scientists contend that eligible voters have been casting fewer ballots since around 1900. (The effects of segregation in the South make it difficult to develop definitive figures prior to the voting rights acts of the 1960s.) Certainly, there is no argument that for at least the past 35 years voter turnout has gotten lower and lower in local, state, and federal elections, even when candidates provide meaningful contrasts to each other. In 1968, for instance, 60.8 percent of the voting age population voted in the presidential election. In 1996, that figure stood at 49 percent. (As with the TV audience for the debates, there have been occasional reversals of the trend; for instance, 55 percent of eligible voters cast a ballot in 1992.)

The typical reading of these and other trends (such as the declining rate at which individuals identify strongly with either major party) is that they reflect the ways in which special interests and the "professionalization" of politics have squeezed the individual voter out of the democratic process. As Gans told The Christian Science Monitor earlier this year, "We have a crisis of the erosion of democracy at the grass roots." But I'm not convinced that the nation's manifest lack of interest in politics stems from such sources, or that it's a bad thing. After all, people in general look out for themselves pretty well, and would-be voters are relatively free individuals who choose to live their lives in ways that will rarely—if ever—comport with a political scientist's vision of the virtuous life.

Here's a different take: We participate less in politics for the same reason we stopped going to drive-in movies the way we used to, getting married as teenagers, making dinner at home, and, for men at least, wearing blue suits with white shirts and red ties: not because we can't, but because we don't want to. Our flesh is not weak when it comes to voting; it's just not willing.

The center of gravity in American life has shifted away from partisan politics and into other areas of activity in which individuals (and groups of individuals) have far greater hopes for gaining satisfaction. The big story in American life over the past few decades is not the decline in voter participation but the ever-increasing proliferation of options, of choices, and of identities in everyday life.

At virtually every level and in every way, there are both more options and, as important, acceptance of more options than there were 20 years ago, 30 years ago, 40 years ago—something clearly evident from indicators ranging from rising interracial marriage rates to increasing acceptance of alternative sexual orientations to increased access to higher education to telecommuting to relaxed dress codes in the workplace.

Aiding and abetting such developments is a consumer culture that by and large responds to customer demand by increasing hours, service, and product selection, whether we're talking about fast food, automobiles, or books. In a word, American life is increasingly characterized by choice. Which may also explain why people increasingly see politics as irrelevant to their lives: Politics remains fundamentally a realm of control, not choice.

For their part, politicians recognize that "choice," defined in the broadest terms possible, has emerged as the preeminent American value. Choice used to be limited to a few positions, such as abortion and school vouchers (which were often assumed to be mutually exclusive). The term is now ubiquitous in contemporary political discourse. Certainly both Al Gore and George W. Bush peppered their rhetoric with the word and characterized virtually all their policy proposals in terms of it.

Each candidate charged that the other's prescription drug benefit for Medicare didn't offer seniors a "real choice." Gore told us repeatedly that one of his tax-based spending plans will allow every family to choose whether to send their kids to college, while George W. Bush testified that young workers should have the right to choose to put some of the money the government forces them to withhold into a small number of "safe" investments.

Such political gestures toward choice are typically incomplete and often incoherent; certainly, they remain largely unconvincing to a wary public. Leaving aside issues of whose money is being spent in the first place, it's hard to believe that Al Gore's ultra-detailed "targeted tax cuts" won't simply embroil beneficiaries in all sorts of bureaucractic intrigue and micromanagement. Similarly, it's hard to believe that George W. Bush is really committed to letting you spend your money as you see fit (Think about that the next time you buy a nickel bag of pot.)

Given that context, it's appealing—even inspiring on some level—that many Americans are letting Icarus drown, so to speak, and simply ignoring politics. Rather than seeking permission or waiting for sanction from government, they are simply getting on with the business of living their lives. They're living on their time, not anyone else's.

To be sure, many of the developments that facilitate choice—from the birth control pill to always—open supermarkets to Microsoft Windows–end up entwined with politics in one way or another. As a number of stories elsewhere in this issue testify, specific policies can greatly help or harm the lives of millions. If government is only rarely involved in the early stages of technological and lifestyle innovation—it more typically works to retard such things—it's extremely adept at inserting itself into the process later on, often with negative effects.

But it's equally clear that the engine driving choice and rising living standards in America runs on tracks that range far beyond politics. In that sense, it's worth remembering that the most important events on Election Day don't necessarily take place at the polls.