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Follow the Vanishing Vote

Thomas Patterson's new book explores why the majority of us won't vote next week


Why won't you vote on Nov. 5? It's a mid-term election year, and if form holds, about two-thirds of the adults who could vote aren't going to bother. Even in a presidential election year, only half of us vote. Why? In The Vanishing Voter: Public Involvement in an Age of Uncertainty, Harvard University's Thomas E. Patterson puts depressing survey data together with more-depressing evidence of how elections really work. His answer: amorphous parties, aggrandizing candidates and amoral media are to blame.Amorphous parties? On the evidence, Patterson says the two major parties are an incoherent mix of special interests whose platforms read "like the menu at a Chinese restaurant." Instead of a few strong principles, they consist of many small promises--to the milk producers, the Hollywood filmmakers, the gun-nut lobby, and on and on. Environmentalists know the Democratic party is for them. Christian fundamentalists are Republicans. Most voters, though, are not one thing but many. Which party is right for the pro-choice gun owner who is black and likes school vouchers?

In Patterson's research, he found that, asked what they like or dislike about the two parties, half of the U.S. adult population can't think of anything to say--at all--about one party or the other. And more than one-quarter can't think of anything to say about either one.

Political awareness is supposed to increase with education and income--and it does. But back in 1952, when political scientists started asking such questions, people had a lot less money and schooling. Still, they had no trouble telling the two parties apart. The Democrats were the party of working people, or else big government, they'd say. The Republicans were for the rich, or low taxes and less regulation.

Today, the parties differ so little on economic issues--the fundamental stuff of politics--that voters are hard-pressed to tell them apart. Take Elizabeth Dole and Erskine Bowles, for example. Dole, the Republican candidate for U.S. Senate, favors cutting taxes for the rich. Bowles says that, if forced to choose, he'd support a prescription drug benefit under Medicare to a tax cut for people making over $1 million a year. But only if he's forced to choose. And Dole supports a prescription drug benefit for seniors, too, further muddying the waters.

In short, neither candidate thinks it's amazingly stupid, incredibly short-sighted and absolutely unacceptable to cut taxes for people making over $1 million a year. Neither, in other words, is clearly for working people. No surprise, really, since both are country-clubbers themselves.

That leaves voters straining to hear whether candidates are really for social security (isn't everyone?), job training (ditto, but get rid of the waste) and higher education ("for the 21st century"); and against corporate corruption (gotta have transparency), unfair trade ("a level playing field") and deficit spending (insert your own laugh line here).

But the aggrandizing candidate, Patterson says, has no economic philosophy beyond raising enough money to get elected. He/she must align with the interest groups that comprise their parties, lest they lose a primary, but once the general election comes, they must align with big bucks. Absent philosophy, money is the key to winning, with political candidates no less than soap.

Meanwhile, the amoral media, which is in it for the buck after all, isn't about to cover politics just because it matters, especially since increasingly it does not. So unless the story's a tear-jerker (Mel Carnahan dies, is re-elected anyway), about corruption (Bob Torricelli) or features a celebrity (Dole-Bowles is a two-fer!), the press won't waste its time or yours.

Who loses in all of this? Low-income people and people with less education, who tend to be the same folks. People at the low end of these two scales vote about half as much as people at the top, a situation unheard of in Europe, incidentally, but common in third-world countries. Because the poor and undereducated vote less, the people who get elected represent them less. Instead, they represent the rich more, which is why it's not surprising that people can't tell the Democrats and the Republicans apart anymore. Especially poor people.

What to do? Patterson discusses lots of "structural" fixes, including same-day voter registration and more voting machines in poor neighborhoods (remember Florida)? But he's not in favor of public campaign financing--he doesn't even bring it up--and flinches at a strong requirement that television stations give free airtime to candidates. Ultimately, on the last two pages, he's reduced to calling on the schools, churches and such to step up their "urgings and opportunities" for greater civic participation--the very thing he's shown that the political system is out to discourage.

A third party, anyone? EndBlock

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