Civic-minded Americans are getting to be as rare as passenger pigeons, writes Harvard political scientist Patterson—and the system likes it just fine.
“The juice has been squeezed out of elections,” declares Patterson (Out of Order, 1993) in this engaging study of modern politics, an outgrowth of the Pew Charitable Trusts–sponsored Vanishing Voter Project, which conducted interviews with some 90,000 eligible voters during and after the 2000 presidential election. Weary and cynical, Americans no longer bother to study up on candidates and issues, no longer tune in to watch debates and conventions, can scarcely be bothered to vote—though, he adds, in the wake of the 2000 fiasco, many wish they had. In the Gore-Bush contest, less than half of the electorate cast a vote. Had all eligible voters turned out, Patterson observes, “the Democrats would have captured the presidency and both houses of Congress.” The present active electorate represents a victory for the status quo: those who do vote are proportionally older and wealthier than the statistically average American, and they tend to have stronger and more conservative opinions on matters such as gun control, labor rights, and abortion; the lower classes, conversely, are scarcely present in modern elections and turn out in numbers far lower than in any other industrial democracy (and, Patterson notes, on a par with India). Patterson attributes this sweeping decline in citizen involvement to many causes, among them the disgraceful quality of the contemporary media and the candidates alike. He also suggests that the system does not serve average citizens well, noting that after September 11, there was no shortage of desire on the part of citizens to do their civic duty—but few outlets for them to do so, apart from purely symbolic gestures such as flying flags. By way of remedy, he suggests a number of measures designed to remove at least some of the tedium of the current electoral process, including a reformed primary system and a shorter campaign cycle.
Provocative if depressing, and required reading for the public-policy–minded.