Note: this is the third in our series on Election 2006. The first two, The Democrats and National Security: Dzerzhinskii’s Dilemma and Electing the Unelected, were presented earlier.
One of the long-running whines about American politics is the low level of voter participation in elections. About this time every election cycle we are regaled with laments about how terrible it is that voter turnout in the U.S. is lower than every “major democracy” that people can think of. We’re also entertained with “reasons” for this problem, ranging from the effect of television (which is on the wane, but still important) to negative campaigning to banal candidates to the sometimes arcane system of voter registration and anything else that the “analyst” doesn’t like about American politcs.
To be frank we’re tired of this whine, which in presidential election years usually goes along with calls for the abolition of the Electoral College. We’re tired of it because it doesn’t really get to the bottom of the issue. People vote primarily because they believe the results of elections–and their particiation therein–will make a difference in their own lives. The simplest way to make an election irrelevant is to place the real power of a society in the hands of people who are not elected, and that to a large extent is why people quit voting or never vote to start with.
Back in the nineteenth century, we have many of the same problems we have today with elections: banal (and frequently drunk) candidates, negative campaigning that rivals or exceeds anything we see today, and plenty of voter fraud. So why did people turn out for these elections the way they did? The answer is simple: they either didn’t have civil service at all or did not have it to the extent that they do now. When the government changed, all of the officials changed. What you could get out of government depended upon who was there, and if you were an actual or potential officeholder, the stakes got really high. That was enough to get everybody’s attention.
Civil service at the federal level was triggered (literally) by the assasination of President James Garfield by a loser in the “spoils system.” The Pendleton Act (named after the Ohio Democrat who sponsored it) created the civil service, whose objective was to create some kind of merit in government positions free from political influence. By the time of President William McKinley, about half of the positions in the federal government were under civil service. It is not an accident, though, that the growth of civil service has been accompanied by the long term decline in voter participation.
The Republicans would rue allowing the creation of such an institution in the years they were dominant. Under Franklin Roosevelt the expansion of government meant the expansion of civil service. Roosevelt’s idea was the creation of an alternative form of patronage through Social Security and other wealth transfer mechanisms, all of which was administered by a bureaucracy that was further insulated from politics by the Hatch Act. By creating a large portion of government that was both “politically untouchable” and administered by “non-political” people who nevertheless had a vested interest in its perpetuation and expansion, Roosevelt took a great deal of effective power out of the hands of elected officials, both those of his opponents and those of his own party as well. And, of course, the level of voter particiation continued to decline.
This has dampened people’s enthusiasm for voting because it has dampened the need for them to vote. Today people can go on year after year, obtaining services and entitlements from the government without having to deal with an elected official. Although, as we commented last week, there are still many important positions in federal and state governments which are appointed by elected officials, there are still more that are not. A good example of this is our public school systems. Although these are certainly subject to political pressure, any elected school board member who will be honest about the subject will tell you that the bureaucracy of the system, from the superintendent to the organised teachers and so on carry a lot of weight as to how the system is operated.
And, of course, these people vote. Since their income is derived from taxation, it is difficult seeing them en bloc opposing tax increases, and we see this pattern very strongly when referenda on additional taxation are offered.
The existence of civil service has doubtless brought competent people into government. But it has also created a patronage dynamic of its own, one which, unintentionally in most cases, creates a long-term threat to the viability of meaningful representative government. By insulating government–and the beneficiaries of its services–from “politics,” it has created a constituency of its own, and it encourages people to ignore the electoral process and to trash the “noise of the renegades,” the voices of those who see the dangers of blindly going forth as we are. In doing this it imperils not only our freedoms but our existence as a republic. The obvious solution is to return to the spoils system, but this would create a total mess in the world we live in. It would, however, bring voter participation back to a high level, but it is unlikely that we want to or or should pay the price for that distinction.
Civil service or not, as they say at the NRA, eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.