Everyone is sure the American political system is broken, but no one wants to blame the people in charge. James Fallows has his nifty little book blaming the press; Howard Kurtz blames our talk show culture; Frontline and The Center for Public Integrity point to our corrupt campaign finance system; conservatives tout their all-purpose reform, term limits; and yet in none of these diagnoses is there any blame for the folks who run the Washington asylum: voters.
What we need to fix Washington is not a little more tinkering with the inside-the-Beltway system. We need a little tinkering outside—voter reform. The problem is twofold: voters are ignorant and corrupt.
The Washington Post‘s recent “Reality Check” series put the problem into sharp focus. Forty-eight percent of Americans do not know which party is more conservative and which is more liberal. Now, it is clear that labels have their limits, but is there any excuse for not knowing where Gingrich and Gephardt stand on the political spectrum? Forty-six percent do not know the purpose of the Supreme Court. Forty percent do not know who the Vice President is—Jay Leno’s constant barrage of jokes notwithstanding. It is true that the vast majority of these potential voters are not registered, but in almost all races the ignorant vote is larger than the difference between the winner and the loser.
Want an explanation for the whipsaw difference between the ’92 election, the ’94 election, and the dismal outlook for Republicans today? Call it the clueless effect. A good chunk of the American electorate has not the faintest idea what is going on in Washington, but a vague unease filtered through half heard snatches of the evening news, drive-time updates, and water cooler conversation has led them to the conclusion that those in power are screwing things up. So they’re mad. And distrustful. And by the election results, vengeful toward those who have failed them. But the last thing anyone inside Washington wants to do is blame the voters. They are, after all, the victims of this corrupt system.
Many commentators complain that Americans are of two minds—they simultaneously want a balanced budget and their benefits protected. The fact may be more simple, for Americans are not bipolar. Instead, there are two groups of Americans: one wants the deficit controlled and the debt reduced, while the other only says it does, but whines—and votes—to protect its piece of pork.
It is this second group, Americans who talk of balanced budgets to pollsters and vote to defend their piece of the government pie that is as corrupt as any in Washington. At least here we have legal protections from those in Washington with a conflict of interest (no matter how infrequently they may be enacted) and punishment for those who break the public faith. But from the corrupt voters, we have no similar safeguards.
Alexis de Tocqueville’s analysis of American democracy in the 19th century has become the basis for many Republican plans to reshape government. However, many have forgotten Tocqueville’s warning about the darker side of democracy: that when Americans discover that they can vote themselves largess from the public treasury, democracy is doomed.
Today more and more Americans are doing just that. They have their hands out and receive fat grants for simply doing nothing or doing things they would already do; all the reform plans on the table will not change this fact. Add them up— students, the elderly, the poor, the disabled, farmers, and a host of smaller constituencies—and together they are more than a majority, and their numbers grow relative to the rest of the population. They all have a legitimate claim on our compassion and our help. But they all have a massive conflict of interest. A congressman in a similar situation would do five to ten.
Moreover, the trend is to place far more power into the hands of exactly the groups that know the least and reap personal gain from their votes. Take “Motor Voter Registration,” for example. Registration is now available in far more government offices, including where the dole’s denizens go to pick up their unearned checks. Though the law was passed in 1993, only now are the last states beginning to comply. Or “Vote by Mail”; in Oregon, the recent Senate campaign broke records for special elections, by spreading the voting over a month and allowing votes to be mailed in. Or campus registration. Youth Vote ’96 was holding seminars last winter on how to get out young voters, and among the topics discussed was how to get universities to allow voter registration with class registration. Already they have met with success on a number of large campuses. MTV and MCI are pushing to register young voters via the Internet. Meanwhile, author Andrew Shapiro is arguing to return more voting rights to convicted felons.
The only arguments Republicans can come up with are that Motor Voter is an unfunded mandate and that voting by mail is prone to fraud. Big deal. Both those problems can be fixed or, at least, tempered. The issue is that voting is a serious responsibility, and people who cannot accept that responsibility should not be allowed to vote. Who would argue that a Supreme Court Justice who did not show up for the oral arguments and did not read the briefs should vote on a case?
Who would argue that a federal regulator should rule on an issue which affects his personal finances? No one. And national elections are no less important because the voting power is more dispersed. Qualifications for voting are controversial, and for good reason. They have been abused in the past to disenfranchise people based solely on race. Ultimately, though, qualifications are a tool, and like any other tool can be used for good or ill.
The first qualification to vote is basic knowledge. All it would take is two questions administered in the booth at the top of the ballot, and they would not have to be in Chinese to disqualify scads of voters: “Who are the two (or three?) major party candidates running for office?” and “To what parties do they each belong?”
Among the most common complaints about the way political campaigns work is the pervasiveness and power of negative ads. On whom do these ads work most effectively? On committed party stalwarts? On responsible voters who read newspaper stories regularly debunking the ads as false? Or on people who feel compelled to vote because it’s the “responsible thing to do,” but fail to put in the time following the race, the issues, and the candidates? A knowledge qualification sends those well-meaning but ill-informed folks back to the sidelines with a message: voting is only part of the responsibility. Judging from the Washington Post‘s survey, those two questions posed above might eliminate half the number of registered voters.
The second qualification to vote is to be a contributor to the government’s coffers. Those taking any kind of government grant should be disqualified. How can anyone learn responsibility if food, a roof, health care, and a small income are rights? No American wants to deny these basic needs to anyone, but people have sacrificed to provide them, and those with their hand out must give something back. A vote is a small but significant symbol of sharing the sacrifice.
The Post‘s series focused significantly on the growing distrust of Americans for their government. They sounded surprised to find this distrust among all classes of people. They should not have been—the past 50 years of democratic rule have undermined the original purpose of our government—to provide pubUc goods. Simply defined, a public good, once produced, is consumed by everyone, even those who did not pay for it. Because those who consume do not have to pay, market forces do not provide these goods. Thus governments were formed to provide them, such as national defense, police protection, and, more recently, clean air.
In 1950, more than 90 percent of federal dollars went to providing public goods. Today, barely a third of the federal budget goes to such purposes. So in half a century, the federal government has gone from a source of public goods—shared expenses and shared benefits—to a source of private goods.
Those who do not share in the largess feel cheated and thus distrustful of the leviathan that lays claim to so much of their wealth. Those who receive the government’s bounty are afraid it could stop without warning. They are distrustful because they have little say in what may happen to them tomorrow. Neither feeling is surprising, but both arise from the fundamental change in the federal government’s focus. This pervasive distrust allows Democrats to sow envy among one group and Republicans to sow anger among the other. And the rank suspicion makes it all the easier to see evil intent on the other side.
Look at how this politics of personal gain has affected the federal government. It is at the feet of elderly voters that the blame for the budget impasse should rest. Clinton’s appeal was strictly to those voters’ private gain. In preventing Republicans from “destroying Medicare,” his appeal moved voters.
This anger has changed supplicant classes—whether welfare mothers, textile workers, or farmers—into demanding classes. In 19th-century America or Victorian England, people who messed up their lives, for whatever reason, still asked for help, but it was an appeal, not an ultimatum. Victorian England and 19th-century America are in fact models for conservatives on how to deal with the destructive effects of the government’s move from public to private. Some conservatives now argue for a return to shame for failings like going on the dole or out-of-wedlock births. This may help in relatively healthy parts of the country, but in some communities—particularly the “permanent” inner-city underclass—individuals who qualify but do not apply for free money are considered fools. As much as individual change can help, the government must apply the stigma of losing the right to vote, a right so symbolic of being an American.
In other communities, people do not look at their middleclass entitlements as “welfare.” People who live on Social Security and Medicare largely believe they paid for it, though any actuary can tell you that this is false. Government has to look for a way to make those people feel the cost of their benefits.
Clearly, the idea of disenfranchising large swaths of the American population is a radical proposition. After all, is it not true that the more people who participate in the political process, the more vibrant our democracy, the more legitimate and representative our government—”of the people, by the people, and for the people”? But what is legitimate about a vote based on ignorance? Or one based on avarice? The argument mirrors that over welfare. Those who argue that putting a check in someone’s hand solves anything are arguing for surface over substance.
Those who believe that our society is in tatters and who place a good share of the blame on government have to ask themselves why the last 50 years of history happened. In two words: voters voted. Change the dynamic, and you have changed the world; leave it alone, and the “Great Society” will flourish unabated.
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