Tony Norman: How complacent voters undermine democracy

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There’s a reason our politicians are among the most craven, ethically challenged and morally bankrupt in the world — they represent an electorate that literally doesn’t give a damn about good governance.

What other explanation could there possibly be for the shabbiness and bad faith of modern American politics? Would citizens who took democracy seriously ever allow congressional gridlock in Washington to hold them hostage? If we cared even a smidgen, the everyday shenanigans that passes for politics would be considered an insult to our dignity as a sovereign people. It would fill us with rage so that every election day would find the polls swelling with voters eager for retribution.

What we have instead is indifference, complacency and a sheep-like reluctance to participate in one of the most impressive experiments in self-governance in human history. I wish I had a dollar for every time some seemingly intelligent person said that the dearth of “good candidates” makes it difficult to vote, as if the conscientiousness of an informed electorate wouldn’t change that state of affairs fairly quickly.

This year, Republicans are expected to consolidate their control over the U.S. House and possibly capture the Democrat-controlled Senate. This isn’‍t because Americans are yearning for Republican control of both houses of Congress. It will be because those who tend to vote Democratic don’t turn out for mid-term elections. It is more a matter of laziness than any sort of conviction that these elections don’‍t matter.

Meanwhile, those whose interests are diametrically opposed to those who stay home will turn out in sufficient numbers to elect officials who will execute their will, more or less.

That’s why a tiny minority of voters enjoy a disproportionate say in who represents their fellow citizens in state capitals and in Washington. That’s why a blue state such as Pennsylvania currently has a Republican governor and Republican control of the Legislature. If Democrats hadn’‍t stayed home in 2010, the GOP wouldn’t have been able to gerrymander voting districts in its favor for a decade.

Say what one will about Tea Party voters, at least they’‍re invested enough in the democratic process to show up in greater than average numbers at election time.

So what if they never win the presidency; they’re reshaping state houses, school boards and municipal politics across the country. Along the way, they’‍re training a generation of Republican politicians to fear crossing them on any issue.

There’s nothing magical about the Tea Party’s disproportionate influence over modern politics. In the end, power and influence boil down to the brutal efficiency of electoral math and who’‍s willing to turn out to vote.

If only we lived in a country where everyone, including inexplicably contented poor people most at risk of being marginalized, counted the days until every election. If only the blood that was spilled during Freedom Summer 50 years ago to ensure everyone’s right to vote hadn’t been shed in vain, we could have the makings of a vibrant democracy.

Think of the optimism of the Northern college students and Southern civil rights workers who risked their lives in the 1960s to register blacks to vote, especially in godforsaken Mississippi where the white majority insisted that blacks had voluntarily ceded governance to them. Their view was that blacks were “happy” until Northern agitators whipped them into a frenzy of democratic aspiration.

Fifty years ago, the Klan abducted and murdered civil rights workers James Cheney, Andy Goodman and Michael Schwerner because the fear of African-Americans participating in the system as equals was considered justification for every act to maintain the evil status quo. Who would have imagined in the hot summer of 1964 that half a century later most Americans, including those then fighting for basic access to the polls, would consider voting too much of a hassle to bother?

It should mortify us all that we’‍ve devolved to the point where frauds are elected by default and corporate sycophants and borderline insane elected officials in both parties are able to game the system on behalf of the rich with near impunity. It doesn’t have to be this way, but we don’‍t care enough to hold our elected officials responsible. Why is that? Why don’t we care enough to live up to our democratic potential?


Tony Norman: tnorman@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1631.

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