Seamanship Quotation

“In political activity, then, men sail a boundless and bottomless sea; there is neither harbour for shelter nor floor for anchorage, neither starting-place nor appointed destination.”
— from Michael Oakeshott's
Political Education” (1951)

Monday, November 1, 2010

Uncertain Americans should vote too

You lucky citizens of the world who can vote in tomorrow’s mid-term elections: suck it up and get it done.

We know that half of you don’t plan to show up. Watching from the outside, we understand why: $4 billion of campaign money has cheapened the issues, given clowns and neophytes an even chance, and—as important—invited the uncertain and the turned-off to feel good about staying home. While many of us elsewhere in the world shake our heads in agreement, you’ll let your country, and the rest of us, down if you don’t vote.

The anti-politician crack—“Don’t vote; it only encourages them”—isn’t a joke on politicians. It’s their bread and butter. They don’t want you to show up. Those who work North American politics for a living, who shape elections and trim the ambitions of democratic governments, concentrate on the votes they already hold as each campaign comes to a close. They bolster opinions that are already passionately held, and largely dismiss the undecided. (A Toronto pollster calculated recently that it probably takes three times more time and money to persuade an undecided voter to support a candidate than it costs to stir up the base.)

Relying only on those who need to be absolutely sure of their opinions and who believe that the others are rednecks or sissies, however, leads to bad government. The philosopher, Michael Oakeshott is right: in politics, there is no agreed starting point or contract with the past, no destination charted by the gods for our taking. The larger the share of actual voters that have the integrity and sense of humor to accept that the candidate of their choosing doesn’t have all the answers, the closer the United States will get to the promise of responsive, effective government. And sometimes, on this fortunate continent, we need government smart enough to manage problems that lesser governments put off.

Political scientists shrug: the undecided will fall in line much like the rest, their turn-out won’t make a difference. But this is not only a static-numbers game. Watering down the dominance of political junkies and fanatics holds the possibility of improving the overall tone of politics and the future calculations of each political party. If the winners rediscover that pragmatists, skeptics, and even pessimists vote too, they may find it safer, as well as wise, to act responsibly. They’ll know at least one thing: a whole lot of you don’t understand. How can you vote for more for seniors and more for defense, be for lower taxes, and be for financing trillion-dollar deficits with low interest loans from China—and take your grandchildren to patriotic rallies?

1 comment:

  1. I would be curious to know your take on Chris Hedges new book "Death of the Liberal Class", and his premise that essentially democracy cannot be maintained in an oligarchic system that gives the common working citizen no real electoral choice. Is it the crumbling of the very pillars of our liberal democracy that gives rise to such voter apathy and the emergence of unorthodox movements like the Tea Party?