Heed the Voice of the People!

The People Appear to Be Yawning


"Power to the people!" is the orthodox slogan of progressives everywhere. They want to democratize everything, believing that their fellow citizens yearn to vote on all issues ranging from how the local high school should be run to whether or not the U.S. Army should invade Iraq. They crave this democratic power, as one typically overwrought progressive statement puts it, because "a pervading sense of powerlessness, denial, and revulsion is sweeping the Nation's citizens as they endure or suffer from growing inequities, injustice, and loss of control over their future and the future of their children." If only the people would vote more, they posit, this awful feeling might go away. During every election pundits maunder on about low voter turnout.

A new study by two University of Nebraska political scientists, John Hibbing and Elizabeth Theiss-Morse, puts the kibosh on the notion that Americans want more participation in the political process. In fact, they want less. "While the prevailing wisdom is that Americans want to be more involved in matters of governance, we argue, on the basis of survey and focus group data, that the last thing most people want is to be more connected to politics of any kind," the researchers write.

Americans favor what Hibbing and Theiss-Morse call "stealth democracy." That is, they want to elect people they believe are sympathetic to the concerns of ordinary people, but do not want to invest any time in studying policy issues. The chief reason most Americans bother with politics at all is because they feel like that's the only way to stop special interest groups and politicians from playing them for suckers. Hibbing and Theiss-Morse believe that the decline in trust of government has actually boosted American political participation over what it would otherwise be. It's intriguing to look at historical voter turnout in U.S. presidential elections over time.

Roughly, it seems that as the federal government grows bigger relative to the country's gross domestic product, eligible voter turnout gets higher. That is, when the government takes more from taxpayers and starts spreading it around, the voters get more interested in how their tax dollars are being spent and who's getting them. The progressive magazine Z confirms this observation by noting that among the eligible voters in 1996, some 76 percent of those with family incomes above $75,000 voted while only 63 percent of those with family incomes between $35,000 to $49,999 and 57 percent of those in the $25,000-$34,999 range voted. And just 38 percent of families with incomes under $10,000 hit the polls. The more you have to lose to the government, the more likely you are to vote. This might explain why progressives also advocate more government power and more government spending: Perhaps they recognize that this might be a key to increasing the voter turnout they love so much.

But why do they love it so much? The rock-the-vote-types find themselves in some embarassing—and telling—company. The Stockholm-based International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, in a global survey of voter turnout, found that "high voter turnout does not guarantee political stability; and conversely, low voter turnout does not mean that there is political instability." For example, voter turnout in the old Soviet Union regularly topped 95 percent; 100 percent of eligible Iraqi voters turned out last year to give Saddam Hussein an amazing 100 percent of the vote.

The University of Nebraska researchers note an ironic disconnect between the progressive goals of "clean government" and high voter turnout: "If Common Cause and reform-minded academics and pundits were successful in making it impossible for elected officials to reap personal rewards for any governmental action they might take, the people's participation in politics would drop dramatically … The belief that the people would become more involved in politics if only the political arena could be cleaned up is simply wrong."

Considered by itself, voter turnout has nothing particularly important to say about the health—or liberty—of a people. In fact, one of the best things our government could do would likely further reduce voter turnout: make government irrelevant to most people's lives. The smaller the government, the less attention anyone will pay to it. In fact, just looking at the low voter turnout in the 19th century presidential elections, when the federal government was vastly smaller than it is today, bolsters that point. The progressives are wrong. The people don't want the power—but they don't want anyone else to have power either. Instead they often agree with another old adage: "that government is best which governs least."