Two of my sons are taking part in a ballroom dancing class this Monday afternoon in Hixson among a group of young people from 7 to 20. I am being the stuffy dad as I wait. My briefcase brims with book and newspaper, and I am writing on a yellow notepad. Moms nearby are using their time more wisely, watching the festivities, bemused by the gawky footfalls that shuffle past in renditions of waltz boxes.
I have two days’ worth of newspaper — starting with the Sunday edition and a page 1 story about office seekers who skimped on exercising the right to vote in earlier elections. Earlier today appeared a story, “NAACP, ministers work to improve black vote.”
The newspaper, in its role as defender of municipal and civic morality, is chiding the public’s representatives (or would-be representatives) about their careless ways with the voting franchise. All of us of voting age who register share in this franchise. In the moral scheme implied in registering, it is a sin to ignore voting and a virtue to visit the polls.
I ask the elder of the two boys what he thinks about Scottie Mayfield, the dairy company operator and Republican challenger for a seat in the federal congress. Mr. Mayfield bailed on 11 of 34 chances to vote. And what about another candidate, a Democrat, Bill Taylor, who missed 10 elections in the past 10 years and is among “sporadic voters” in the candidate field?
Josiah, a gangly 15-year-old who watches John Stewart and other political humor shows on the Internet, says he is not offended by these men’s lack of election thrill. He says Mr. Mayfield is showing wisdom in having voted less than fellow candidate Weston Wamp, who registered to vote three days after his 19th birthday and hasn’t missed taking part in an election.
“[Mr. Mayfield] knows that the system won’t work, regardless of whether he votes or not,” the boy says. American candidates for president take office and “do whatever they want” and are ruining the country, the boy says. The United States is dysfunctional and destined to break apart because of overwhelming debts, he contends. A country headed by a king has an advantage, he insists, because royalty is required to take a longer-term view of government to benefit the heirs. “In England,” he surmises, “they don’t have a mindset of ‘every four years’ because they know that their children will be inheriting power.”
“You are a neo-monarchist,” I declare, dismayed at the snap in Josiah’s reply.
A people heavily dependent on political gimmes are American blacks. But “voter apathy” affects the number of blacks going to the polls, raising worries among black activists such as Joe Rowe of the local National Association for the Advancement of Colored People chapter. He cites a 2009 election in a city council district gerrymandered to produce a black candidate. So few blacks voted for the black candidate that a caucasian won. Though blacks had a majority, 10 percent voted vs. 17 percent voting overall in the district. Mr. Roe says 11 million blacks of voting age aren’t registered. Notable black activist James Mapp tells the Times Free Press, “We are just lethargic in this country, all over. We don’t take civics classes anymore, so we have no real interest in government. It’s a mess for the white and black communities.”
The indifference to voting is hardly surprising nor a “mess.” I doubt the source is lack of civics classes in public school. The United States stands near an acme of centralization. Public confidence in the power of government programs to solve all mankind’s problems is sliding. Faith in salvation by administration seems to be giving way to a more rational proposition, namely: We will ride the gravy train until it stops, so it doesn’t matter which talking head is spouting the promises.
Republicans and Democrats are a duopoly, aided by mainline media, keeping real choice from the American voter. The candidacy of Ron Paul, despite the great influence of social media, was stifled by the official media’s decision to simply ignore Dr. Paul, who suspended part of his campaign Monday. “How can we keep Ron Paul out of the paper today?” was a joke on the Times Free Press copy desk made by a dissenter. Dr. Paul, a Republican, rejects the party line and argues for limited government and constitutional liberty. Dr. Paul apart, the duopoly is undermining the full faith and credit of the national government as a commercial actor, debtor and political savior.
A continuing ruination, papered over by inflation, lies ahead. Elections are the sacrament that seems to cement the people to the state. But the value of that sacrament is in steep discount, the faith behind it having faltered from boredom and casuistry.
The civitarian view is best represented by Mr. Wamp’s comment to reporter Chris Carroll, that voting is something “people in all corners of the world literally would die for.” To Mr. Wamp, national solutions lie in the framework of the U.S. Code. Adjust the code and everything will turn out all right. Political solutions are needed for the train of disasters that earlier political solutions wrought, whether the Grand Old Party’s No Teacher Left Behind law or the Providing Appropriate Tools Required (to) Intercept (and) Obstruct Terrorism Act (Patriot) of 2001. Of late, the federal CISPA act of Internet surveillance has support of the federal representative to the Chattanooga area, Rep. Chuck Fleischmann. Given the statutory output of federal elected officials, there may be a kernel of wisdom that Mr. Mayfield and my Josiah share.
Mr. Mayfield was joined in sporadic nonvoting by Ron Bhalla, a naturalized American from India who registered to vote in 2004 and missed nine of 14 votes. “He was concentrating more on financially supporting a wife and family,” campaign manager Ken Orr told the newspaper. Democrat Mary Headrick, a doctor, told Mr. Carroll: “I’d be in line to vote on election day, and they would call me to the ER for a patient.” Another candidate, Matthew Deniston, an independent, was in military service. “We were deploying every six months, so I was more focused on that than politics,” he told Mr. Carroll.
These explanations are more than reasonable. Mr. Bhalla, unable to generate revenues for himself by seizing it from others, as does Uncle, has to make a living. Dr. Headrick finds her place in line to receive the sacrament interrupted by an emergency medical call that hurries her into her car and down the road toward a hospital.
Elections are part of a dance to which the establishment classes invite their inferiors. The pair sweep about the wooden floor, with the male technocrat leading the silly female laden with sins in a pleasing twirl. Elections are the means whereby the ruling political groups maintain fiefs to their own liking and pay off the commoners with a sense that they, too, have a role.
“By establishing an institutional channel of political activity and habituating citizens to its use, governments reduced the danger that mass political action posed to the established political and social order,” says Benjamin Ginsburg, a Johns Hopkins University professor. “Elections contain and channel away potentially violent and disruptive activities and protect the regime’s stability. Elections limit the scope of mass political participation. Elections permit citizens to take part only in the selection of leaders. The mass public does not directly participate in subsequent policy making. [E]lections in the United States tend for the most part to focus mass attention exclusively on the question of who shall govern and to divert it away from questions of how and what the government shall do.”