The dangers of a turned off, apathetic electorate
In 1988, one of the nation's great political cartoonists, Mark Alan Stamaty, created a side-splitting parody of the 1988 Bush-Dukakis election is his comic strip, "Washingtoon." The message Stamaty delivered in the cartoon still resonates 22 years later.
As those old enough to remember that dreary election may recall, Dukakis received major downgrades from the national press corps at the time for his response to a question posed by CNN news anchor Bernard Shaw during one of his debates with then-Vice President Bush.
Shaw asked Dukakis, an opponent of the death penalty, how he would feel about the issue if his wife, Kitty, were raped and murdered. For the mainstream pundits, Dukakis's failure to perform a credible Dirty Harry impersonation during the response was sufficient evidence that the Governor lacked the requisite "toughness" to be president. This, along with his failure to cut a sufficiently macho figure in a photo op in which he rode in an army tank and Bush's down-in-the-gutter TV ads about Willie Horton, helped seal Dukakis's fate.
The "Washingtoon" parody went something like this:
Bush: "If elected, I promise to do three things – salute the flag, play with my grandchildren and appoint judges who will overturn Roe v. Wade."
Dukakis: "What about me? I won't appoint right-wing judges."
Shaw: "You can't be president until you tell us how you'd really feel if your wife were raped and murdered."
Narrator: "One thing logically follows another. We have to have a reactionary Supreme Court because Mike Dukakis doesn't like to talk about his emotions in public."
The more things change…
And so it goes today. Recently, we've witnessed two new examples in which harmful and backward-looking public policy choices of enormous and lasting importance may be inflicted upon large numbers of people because voters (and elected officials) lost interest or allowed themselves to be distracted by side issues and conflict craving pundits with the attention span of three year-old.
Consider this week's election results from Massachusetts where an obscure Republican state senator captured Senator Edward Kennedy's vacated U.S. Senate seat in a special election. In it, the winner, Scott Brown, won 51.9% of the roughly 2.2 million people who voted or about 1.16 million people.
Though portrayed almost universally by pundits as "heavy" turnout, the 2.2 million figure actually represents only about half of the state's registered voters and a third of its total population. It's about two-thirds of the number who voted in 2008 – an election in which Barack Obama and Joe Biden received about as many votes by themselves as the total number voting this Tuesday. Brown received almost the exact same actual vote total as John McCain and Sarah Palin.
Nonetheless, the Massachusetts results are being touted as an earth-shattering, "game-changing" development that has gravely wounded the movement for health care reform because Senate Democrats now hold "only" a 59-41 edge.
As a new "Washingtoon" strip might put it:
"One thing logically follows another. Three-hundred million Americans must now be denied health care reform because of an off-year election driven by an array of issues in one mid-sized state that could have gone the opposite way if 49,000 people (seven-tenths of one percent of the state's population) had voted differently or if an extra 1.5% of the population had bothered to vote."
To see an equally egregious example closer to home, consider once more last fall's school board elections in Wake County. In that case, of course, the gap between what voters actually did (and did not do) and the "mandate" that the election victors claimed is perhaps even more startling.
In Wake County, there are around 900,000 people and more than 572,000 registered voters spread across the county's nine geographic school board districts. Last fall's election however, involved just four of the nine school board seats. Moreover, turnout was abysmal. In the main (October) vote, a total of 31,170 people voted. This represents about 11.5% of eligible voters in the four districts, 5.4% of total county voters, and about 3.4% of the total county population.
Together, the four victorious candidates received just over 18,000 votes or about 3% of the county's registered voters or about 2% of the county's total population. That's one person in fifty.
The combined margins of victory in the four districts were even more microscopic. Together, the October results produced a total victory margin for the four candidates over their nearest competitors of 7,153. That's 2.6% of eligible voters in the four districts, 1.25% of total county voters, and about 0.8% of the total county population.
Put another way, had an extra one in a hundred Wake County residents shown up or changed his or her mind in the October election – an election that received scant attention and in which the key issues were, to say the least, poorly understood – things today would be completely different. In other words:
"One thing logically follows another. The large and mostly successful school system in one the country's fastest growing and most desirable communities must be torn down and radically overhauled by conservative ideologues because of an off-year election driven by an array of confusing and poorly covered issues that could have easily gone the opposite way if one extra person in one-hundred had changed his or her mind or bothered to vote."
Making sense of it all
The point of all this is not to denigrate the democratic process or to challenge the fundamental legitimacy of these elections. Scott Brown in Massachusetts and Chris Malone, John Tedesco, Deborah Prickett, and Debra Goldman in Wake County were all legitimately elected as far as anyone can tell.
The point is to highlight two critical and badly underreported facts:
#1 – Despite the breathless and overheated conclusions of the main stream media and a large number of wimpy, self-interested politicians, neither of these elections should be interpreted as powerful new mandates to kill national health care reform or to end integration of the Wake County schools. Instead, they should be reported for what they were: typical results for poorly publicized, poorly covered and poorly understood off-year elections involving small fragments of the populace during hard economic times.
#2 – The overall popular support for progressive policy solutions has not changed. The vast majority of Americans still want dramatic health care reform and the vast majority of Wake County residents still want an integrated, world class public school system. But a lot of people are unhappy with the current hard economic times and the seemingly slow pace of change. Add to this the often tin-eared and tepid approaches of the nominally progressive officials in power and you've got a recipe for thoughtful voters to stay home in droves and for protest votes to carry the day. For better or worse, American elections are not multi-party affairs in which people can more clearly elevate different points of view. Here, if you're frustrated with the people in power, you often don't have a good alternative choice.
So what does this mean for progressive change and those who believe in it?
The first and most obvious lesson is that folks ought not to get too discouraged. Yes, for now, progress may be derailed, but that cannot last. The long-term, political, ideological and demographic trends continue to break progressives' way. That conservative protesters won such miniscule victories during such hard and restive times is actually pretty amazing.
The second and more practical lesson is the need for a renewed commitment to "trench work." It ought to have been obvious, but progressives need to remember that it takes more than one presidential election victory to secure lasting policy change. If there's a central lesson to be learned from the Massachusetts and Wake County election results, it's that sustained efforts to combat apathy, sloth and distractions amongst the public and elected officials – even on a very small scale – can make an enormous difference. The stakes are high and the margins of victory and defeat are often very, very small.
Let's get back to work.