How Americans Vote

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The
Vanishing Voter?

In
his new book, The
Vanishing Voter: Public Involvement in an Age of Uncertainty

(Knopf, 2002), Thomas E. Patterson poses the question “Where
Have All the Voters Gone?”  If anybody can answer this question,
Mr. Patterson should be the one. He is the Bradlee Professor
of Government and the Press at Harvard University’s John
F. Kennedy School of Government. In addition, he is the co-director
of the Vanishing Voter Project at Harvard University’s Shorenstein
Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy
, which is
generously funded by the Pew Charitable Trust. According to the
project’s web site:

”The
Vanishing Voter Project seeks to reinvigorate the presidential
campaign through research-based proposals designed to improve
its structure. The project has the goal of broadening and deepening
citizens’ involvement in the presidential selection process.”

Apparently,
the academic establishment is apprehensive that declining public
support for the elected head of state of the American union is weakening
the institution of political government and is undermining its control
over the population. And as the political establishment goes, so
goes the academic establishment.

When
Mr. Patterson says he wants to find out where all the voters
went, he is expressing concern over shrinking participation in political
elections. Why is the number of citizens showing up at the polls
on schedule so important? It is because citizen participation in
the political process is the main determinant of the legitimacy
of the government that supports "clients" and other dependents
such as Harvard academicians.

The
diminution of political participation in our so-called “democratic”
society raises the level of uncertainty as to the winner of the
race and bearer of the mace. Low turnouts at the polls cloud the
election of the president and commander-in-chief. In a game where
the winner takes all, ambiguity is worse than losing. In a "one-man-one-vote"
political democracy, a person is allowed only one chance to be on
the winning side, but the winning side gets a monopoly of power
over all until the next election. As a result, resentment and resignation
are inevitable consequences. Rancor over the presidential election
of 2000 is a case in point, never mind the fact that the national
popular vote count is not a constitutional criterion for the election
of American presidents.

To
discover why they are disengaging from elections, Patterson's project
interviewed nearly 100,000 Americans during the 2000 election campaign.
This evidence combined with polling data from earlier elections
established that voters are definitely disappearing from the political
scene. Patterson found voter turnout declined almost continuously
from before 1960 past 2000. Disappointing at the time, the turnout
for the 1960 presidential election was less than 65 percent of the
adult population. That figure fell to only 51 percent
in 2000, which was up from 49 percent in 1996. In the off-year elections
of 2002, a mere 18 percent turned out for the congressional
primaries with only 39 percent showing up for the November general
election.

Patterson
also reports sharp drops in the numbers of households listening
to the October presidential debates. For example, in 1960,
60 percent of the nation’s television sets were tuned to the broadcasts.
In 2000, viewers of those broadcasts had declined to less than 30
percent of the television households. (Halftime commercials on Monday
Night Football draw a bigger audience.) This drop the public’s interest
in political campaigns correlates with the declining numbers
of voters turning out at the polls.  

What
Is the Nature of Governmental Authority in a Political Democracy
When a Majority of Qualified Electors Shuns the Polls?

Patterson
asks rhetorically, “What’s going on here? Why is the bottom dropping
out on electoral participation?” These questions impart
an incongruous sense of urgency to a presumably academic research
project. However, the charter of the “Vanishing Voter” study betrays
this benign objective and seeks an active political role instead,
namely to “reinvigorate” presidential elections. Apparently,
burgeoning campaign expenditures for lobbying and media exposure
by all political factions is not enough. Academic institutions have
been drafted into the campaign even as media outlays for
political promotion have grown exponentially. Campaign expenses
now exceed the national budget at the beginning of the Civil War
and still public interest in political campaigns and elections declines.

In
a different context, advertising pioneer P. T. Barnum complained
to his marketing staff:

”Half
of our advertising budget is wasted! The question is which half?”   

Barnum
could live with this uncertainty because he was a businessman accustomed
to dealing with change as the obverse of opportunity. But change
is anathema to politicians and academicians who rely on the status
quo, which depends on maintaining the legitimacy of the prevailing
political authority.

The
academicians are trying to "do something" about the
declining legitimacy of political office-holders. Since these efforts
are seemingly fruitless, they might well consider the legitimacy
problem of politics itself. A legitimate question is:

How
can Machiavellian political processes be trusted to govern a
progressive human population when history records only failure?

Clearly,
money won’t buy legitimacy or convert a confidence game
into a social technology — the recent history of political campaigns
is ample evidence. However, notwithstanding a wealth of data at
hand, Patterson is unable to answer his question “why
are they disengaging from elections?” Perhaps his definition of
voting and voter turnout is leading him astray.

“Where
Have All the Voters Gone?”

Fundamentally,
voting is a volitional choice from a menu of alternatives
excluding none and including "none of the above" as a
legitimate choice. Such choices take place only in the brain of
an individual human person. Thus, a valid "vote" can be
expressed only by a person acting on his own recognizance vis–vis
the world of alternatives excluding none. Considering all forms
of such choosing, Americans are easily seen to be voting more regularly
and enthusiastically nowadays than at any time in theirs or anyone
else’s history.

What
is the evidence? The evidence is a consumer economy turning over
more than ten trillion 2003 dollars worth of goods and services
annually with virtually the whole population participating every
day in every way! Notice that the preponderance of such voting takes
place continuously without any so-called class, race, age, gender
or party distinctions, or qualifications of citizenship, residence,
registration or official calendar. And this voting occurs in a purely
democratic manner, i.e., as a matter of self-determination without
duress, regimentation or prejudice. It is a process in which all
participants may and usually do win to some degree. As long as they
are free and independent agents of their own cause, they don't vote
unless they expect to win something with high probability. In principle,
there are no losers in this arena of human action.

This
paradigm of human action produces the state of affairs envisioned
by the original organizers of American government as expressed in
the Declaration of Independence. This document states in effect
that all men have an equal moral standing in the pursuit of their
own happiness as they reckon it, and that the purpose of government
is to see to it. Whereas the founders had realistic expectations
for the ambitions of their fellows, we can now see they did not
fully appreciate how politics could corrupt the purpose of government.

The
burgeoning, popular kind of voting takes place in an arena
wholly separate from politics. It must because the "majority
rule" that characterizes political democracy precludes the
sovereignty of individual consumers. The winner of political elections
"takes all" whereas economics merely accords "to
each his own." Politics produces a monopoly ruled by a minority
that presumes a sanction of the majority. By contrast, the economy
is open to all comers or else it is not economics. Every participant
can win in an economic "election."

So
where is this alternative arena of power? It is the free,
uninhibited (laissez faire, live-and-let-live) marketplace,
which is everywhere and always open to all who want to play free
of coercion. This is the place where consumers, which is everybody,
buy or don't buy at their sole discretion and in proportion to their
productivity and prudence in their parallel role as producers. As
a result of such buying and abstaining, the consumers rule
the producers, who are subject to competition for the patronage
of the consumers. The producers, all of whom are consumers as well,
are utterly dependent on the voluntary patronage of consumers. In
other words, all rule themselves and each other under the province
of competition. And competition prevails everywhere legal privilege
does not. Therefore, competition is the basic government in free
market and the basic law is the law of supply and demand. If there
is any such thing a consumer protection, competition is it. The
legal profession and its monopoly of the state's judicial system
is mere scam by comparison.

The
rule of the consumers, which is everybody, is known as economic
democracy. As expressed by economist Ludwig von Mises:

"The
very principle of capitalist entrepreneurship is to provide
for the common man. In his capacity as consumer, the common
man is the sovereign whose buying or abstention from buying
decides the fate of entrepreneurial activities. There is in
the market economy no other means of acquiring and preserving
wealth than by supplying the masses in the best and cheapest
way with all the goods they ask for."

The
Demise of Politics

Politics subordinates
the peaceful public province of the competitive marketplace to overweening
government by selected politicians, their bureaucratic minions,
client factions and other idle busy-bodies who subsist on extractions
from and impositions on producers by force, threat of force or defamation.
How does this stark contrast in the human style of life
– expressed in terms of voting – escape Prof. Patterson’s
notice? Perhaps he is focused so narrowly on the spectacle of political
contests for power over people that he is oblivious to all
the volitional phenomena going on around him. As a result, he fails
to see that the decline of political participation is merely
a natural shift in voter preferences from conflict to
cooperation, from regimentation to personal enterprise, from the
coercive affairs of politics to the productive volitional domain
of events in the normal pursuit of happiness.

So
where have all the voters gone? They did not go anywhere. They merely
remained in the market where they live and work. In doing so, they abstained
from wasting their precious time and consents on idle gestures,
nonsense, charades, wasteful efforts and destructive campaigns.
They abstained in self-defense. They looked after their own property
and made their estates grow.

Professor
Patterson asks the question “Why Do So Many Americans Hate Politics?”
An answer is suggested in this H. L. Mencken quip:

”It
is hard to believe that a man is telling the truth when you
know that you would lie if you were in his place.”

Self-respecting
Americans hate politics because they hate liars. They shun it for
the same reason.

Frank
Baum advised Dorothy and her toy companions through the voice of
the Wizard of Oz to “Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain.”
Can it be that Baum's message is finally influencing political participation?

Nowadays,
skeptics like Mencken and Baum are finding means to pull the curtain
and shine the light on the political imposters. The public now has
visibility of politicians in action in their natural habitat
like never before. The spectacle is perhaps more than either can
stand. And the profession of politics won’t stand scrutiny
on rational humanitarian grounds. It is definitely not social. Robert
LeFevre suggested it was a form of animal behavior, as in "political
animal."

Surely
the eminent co-director of the Vanishing Voter Project at Harvard
University’s Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics
and Public Policy can see that the real cause of politics’ rapid
demise comes down to truth in advertising. According to this
well-tested theory, as bona fide information regarding social events
becomes more accessible to people on a timely basis, they become
better prepared to act, which they will on their own recognizance
every day to make the most of their lives while they have them.
Unless they are deceived and /or intimidated, people easily find
they need not postpone life-saving and life-advancing decisions
until the next political election. The market offers them alternatives
to exercise every day. 

Given
the choice, people don't vote on the false alternatives offered
by incompetent, unrealistic and irrelevant institutions in
relatively rare political elections. Authentic information not only
in print but also streaming over the Internet, cables and airwaves
enables people to see for themselves that politics is irrelevant
to their daily lives and future prospects. No wonder then that politics
is becoming increasingly passé. It is being overtaken by
a burgeoning population increasingly devoted to living their own
lives as best they can free of guilt for so doing.  

As
time passes, more people are finding they have real choices within
their own grasp and control in the purely social domain
– the marketplace – where they have practical and prudent opportunities.
By contrast, politics never delivers on its promises regardless
of the “issue,” and people are beginning to realize that political
participation only encourages more of the same old distractions
from production and progress.

Thanks
to Prof. Patterson, Harvard University and the Pew Trust, we
now have convincing evidence that people are increasingly exerting
their natural sovereignty in contempt of proxy political establishments
and their meaningless rituals. Political voters are found to
be vanishing. The data showing a quantitatively factual picture of
political participation confirms abstention from politics is a growing
phenomenon. Abstainers now outnumber political voters and the spread
is increasing with each succeeding election. The bandwagon
for political government seems to have lost its wheels.

Economic
participation is its own reward. It is the essence of individual
liberty and it needs no advocates to exhort "get out and vote."
Human freedom is the dynamically stable social paradigm after all. 
And human life goes on quite nicely on its own recognizance.

Ain't
nature grand?

September
23, 2004

Al
Lowi [send him mail] has
been a professional engineer in private practice in Rancho Palos
Verdes, California, for the past 40 years.

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