The Center for the Study of the American Electorate (CSAE) recently issued a dreary summation about participation in the primary elections so far this year. Based on the 25 states that have already held their primaries, the report chronicled a pattern of voter indifference and, in some cases, record low turnout.
I think that our chattering classes have overcomplicated this issue.
Elections are about choices. In a two-party system, you’re supposed to have two of them. These choices should represent options which are deemed desirable by a sizable part of the population. If the vote is for divided government (a common result in U.S. politics) haggling for a reasonable result for everyone should ensue. If it doesn’t, the winner should put forth an agenda and stand and fall of it.
Unfortunately there are many forces working against this simple formula, and our system is stuck in the worst of two worlds.
The first is that too many of the players in our system (principally large corporations, bureaucrats and interest groups) don’t want things to change, or at least change to their detriment. Thus they invest a great deal of money (or, in the case of the IRS, use their powers to tilt the table) in keeping things going their way. The larger the government, the greater the incentive to do this, and the more distasteful turns in electoral results become.
On the other hand, the ideological polarisation of our political system creates a stark choice on paper but in reality leads to gridlock, which in its own way facilitates the status quo seekers.
The result is that people, correctly, come to the conclusion that their choice doesn’t really affect the outcome, or that their choice doesn’t reflect their desires. In either case they quit voting. In a country where the legitimacy of the system derives from democratic process, this is a problem, and hand-wringing ensues. But the choice to drop out is sensible if not desirable.
One other thing that drives this is the marginalisation of the independents, those proverbial swing voters who used to decide elections in this country. That went by the wayside in 2012. Personally I think it right stupid to have your elections hang on the choice of 5-10% of the electorate, but that’s the way we’ve done it.
I think we’d do ourselves a favour to stop and consider a simple question: how can two parties fairly represent the opinion range of a country as diverse as this one? Our system was purportedly designed for no parties, but, as in the case of the UK, the reality is that a two-party system has suited it from the early days of the Republic. To go to a multi-party system–with the complexities that go with it–would need a parliamentary system.
But that, I suppose, is too unAmerican to contemplate for either side of the aisle.