A note to the Reader: This is the second essay in a series that are posted on the website, www.indielitworld.com. My wife says this is too long because we have lost our willingness to read anything other than slogans, and she is probably right, but I don’t know any other way to explain a complex issue. If you are not interested in politics and what is wrong with your country, you can just ignore it. If you are interested and do care, I hope that you will join us in a conversation on www.indielitworld.com.
By Gordon S. Black, PhD
I want to start by asking you a question. Assuming you liked sports, would you be willing to pay $100 to go see a basketball game between the Los Angeles Lakers and the best high school team in California? To most reasonable people, this is actually a pretty stupid question. Why would anyone pay to see supposed “competition” that was as mismatched as the one I propose? One might attend for a single time as a novelty, but mismatched competition gets boring very quickly, as most of the professionals in sports realize as they work hard to equalize the competitive balance of the professional leagues in order to retain the interest and loyalty of the fans.
Since the answer to this question is obvious, let me ask a second question about an analogous situation. Why do we bother to vote in elections where one of the competitors, whom we call an “incumbent”, has $3 million in cash to spend on the election while the other candidate, the challenger, has less than $100,000 to spend in the competition? Why bother? There is no doubt about the outcome. The probability that the incumbent will win is very close to certainty. The incumbents will win 98 to 100 percent of the time in this situation, and the challengers will lose, and our vote in that outcome is largely meaningless in that it has no probability of affecting the competition at all.
I know the answer to this question as well. We Americans are trained from childhood to believe that our votes matter, that the right to vote is the central pillar of our democracy, and we are socialized from childhood to feel a genuine sense of obligation to go to the polls and participate. So we vote mostly out of a sense of civic duty or responsibility. This contention is supported by a mountain of statistical evidence gathered over the past fifty years on voting behavior.
However, our sense of civic obligation is not strong enough any longer to get more than half of us to vote in off-year elections or for most contests at the state and local level. Participation in our elections at every level of government has been declining over the past fifty years. The reason is obvious. As more and more of our political contests for office have become as imbalanced as the one described above, we Americans come to see elections as meaningless to us as fully imbalanced election is. We become nonvoters even as civic groups spend millions of dollars attempting to persuade us that our votes still matter.
This point was brought home vividly to me in an off-year election in 1990. I was standing in a voter line early one morning in Pittsford, New York, a suburb of Rochester, New York. There were quite a few people there in the period before everyone had to go to work. I was reading something; just waiting for my turn to enter the election booth arrived. In front of me, there were two young women waiting and talking, one of them glancing at her watch every few minutes. They are both growing impatient. “Why am I doing this?” One woman asked the other.
“Doing what?” was the puzzled response.
“Standing in this line waiting to vote!” was the reply. “This is just plain stupid and a waste of time. I’ll wait all this time, and when I finally get into the booth, I’ll see a whole set of phony elections where the outcome is already decided. The incumbent is going to win and I won’t even know the name of the other candidate. It’s absurd!”
The other woman to whom she was speaking had a thoughtful look on her face, thinking about it. “You know, I think you’re right, but I still feel that I have to vote. It’s my responsibility.”
“Well, I don’t have the time to waste standing here! I’ll see you later.” And with that, she turned and walked out of the voting station.”
I was actually startled by the exchange. I am a Political Scientist by training and I know a great deal about voting behavior, but this singular event was an up-close and personal demonstration of something that I had not thought about for a long time.
The experience of watching the woman leave the voting station kept reverberating in my head, and I decided to talk a look at the actual outcome of the state and national elections. The results were striking. In the Congressional and state legislative elections nationwide, 98 percent of the incumbents who ran were reelected and the ones that lost were mostly due to scandal. In races for the legislature in New York State, every single incumbent of both political parties was re-elected in 1990, and in every election before that dating back more than 30 years.
The concern did not leave me. Instead, it led to a book published by my son, Ben, and I in 1994, entitled The Politics of American Discontent (John Wiley & Sons). That book examined elections and voting behavior back to 1960, and we looked at voting behavior in California and New York and several other states. We were able to establish a number of trends:
• The percentage of incumbents re-elected to office was rising during the whole period to the point in 1992 that most incumbents were clearly invulnerable, no matter how unhappy the voters were with the government.
• Incumbents were winning because they could amass vast and disproportionate funds for their re-election campaigns, outspending their opponents by a margin to ten to twenty to one, mostly spent on phony propaganda that proclaimed how wonderful they were.
• The electorate was responding as one might expect, with turnout (and interest) declining in most elections except those where there was a clearly balanced competition for a major office, usually the President, Governor or United States Senator.
As a Political Scientist and an American, I believe deeply in the importance of giving voters a real choice in elections. A “real choice” is one where both the incumbent and the challengers have a relatively equal opportunity to communicate their views to the electorate, and where the incumbent’s self-promotional activities are countered by a competitor who has the desire and means to challenge the rosy, self-serving picture that is always presented by the incumbents about their activities. Incumbents will still be more likely than challengers to win, but they will not win because the voters were denied an opportunity to hear both sides of the arguments.
By this standard, American elections have become mostly a fraud; a fraud where the appearance of freedom and the right to vote are affirmed by the politicians and the courts, even as these rights are undermined by the reality of the completely one-sided nature of the competition for most offices. The incumbents have a near monopoly on the ability to communicate with voters, and that was not what was intended when the American democratic system was established.
It does not matter whether you are a Democrat, Republican or Independent. This situation is not in the interests of Americans as citizens or voters. When you are denied a real choice, you are denied your most fundamental and sacred democratic right – the right to influence your government through your votes for candidates. Why? When elections are all decided by the amount of money that an incumbent can amass from special interests, that is not a fair competition by any standard of competition.
What I recognized in 1990 was simply this. Even as the Berlin Wall had come down in 1989 and some limited form of democracy was developing in the former Soviet Empire, Americans were giving up their right to influence their government through the creation of effectively one-candidate elections – just like the Soviet system – where the outcome of the election was determined in advance. And, we were giving up our democratic right without anger, protest, or outrage – a basic right that Americans had died to protect many times in our past, gone without a whimper from the quiescent public.
The implications of our failed electoral system are profound, and they will shape this Blog over the next few months. If they make you angry, they should, and you should join us at www.indielitworld.com because we intend to do something about it. If you have lost your capacity for anger, then I feel sorry for all of us.
Gordon S. Black, PhD