A Philosopher's Blog

Voter Apathy

Posted in Politics by Michael LaBossiere on November 7, 2014

The recent midterm election was marked by numerous Republican victories, so apparently the voters believed that the solution to Republican obstructionism in congress was to elect more Republicans. That should work well.  Interestingly, the Republican leadership has asserted how they want to get work done and expressed their willingness to work with Obama. Of course, they also warned him about “poisoning the well” by striking off on his own in regards to immigration reform. I am not sure which well Boehner is referring to; perhaps it is that poison well that has been filling up since 2008.

I am, of course, a Democrat. But, my political views are based on ethical arguments rather than ideology and I took the crushing defeat of the Democratic party in stride. Which is fortunate, because someone had to be in good enough shape to console my friends who are devoted Democrats.

While I would have preferred a Democratic victory, I was reasonably sure what the outcome would be. While some might point to the vast sums spent by Republican backers, one must also point to the vast sums spent by Democratic backers. While some might point to voter suppression, one must also point to voter self-suppression. That is, voters simply deciding not to vote despite it being easy and convenient (in most states you can get a mail-in ballot with almost no effort).

While I do not discuss my own politics in class nor encourage students to support any particular candidate, I do discuss voting in general. While some students have been enthusiastic about voting, most express the same enthusiasm for voting as they do for class (that is, very little). Not surprisingly, students express many of the same reasons as other voters for their apathy. One reason is the belief that elections are settled in the shadows by those with the money and political influence–that is, that elections are essentially shams. The second reason is that people often find the candidates for both parties unappealing and regard them both as politicians who will just serve the interest of whoever paid for their campaign. For example, many folks saw the election in Florida as a matter of picking between the lesser evils. The majority of those who voted, voted for Rick Scott. A third reason is sort of a vague and general apathy about politics that seems fueled by the negative ads and the toxicity of American politics. That is, politics is seen as nasty and awful and people would rather think about something else.

This apathy seems to be widespread. Voter turnout on 11/4/2014 was about 44% (exact numbers vary). The worst turnout was apparently 36% for a state and the best was about 60% (which was my home state of Maine). Many elections were close (Scott beat Crist 48% to 47%) so many winners were elected by a minority of voters (but a majority of those who actually voted).

The stock view presented by the pundits is that the Democrats are hurt the most by low turnout, primarily because the solid supporters of the Republicans (old  white folks) vote reliably. In contrast, many of those who would probably vote Democrat if they voted, are unreliable and generally do not turn out for midterm elections. Sadly, many of these people still complain very loudly about the results of the election they did not participate in. While they obviously do have the legal right to complain and perhaps even a moral right, they should probably either vote or shut up.

Those who like conspiracy theories do like to claim that the Republicans have long been engaged in manufacturing voter apathy among the key demographics of the Democrats (the young, minorities, and women). People who like the facts do like to point out that gerrymandering has all but locked in most incumbents and that the Republicans have been masters of this.

The cynical view is, of course, that even if this is all true, the Republicans have proven better at politics than the Democrats, at least for now. If the Democrats want to win, they will need to figure out what the Republicans have been doing right and what they have been doing wrong and work out a strategy.

Oddly enough, I am inclined to favor the idea that a Democrat will win the presidential election in 2016. The trend in politics seems to be that people accumulate a negative view of the party in power (no doubt due partially to negativity bias-that the negative is given more weight than the positive) and then vote angry. Or apathetic. But, the Republicans might be able to ride the fall of Obama to victory in 2016.

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12 Responses

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  1. Quote for the day | Civil Commotion said, on November 7, 2014 at 8:38 am

    […] Michael LaBossiere […]

  2. ajmacdonaldjr said, on November 7, 2014 at 1:13 pm

    A Democrat won’t be elected POTUS in 2016. This most recent Republican midterm takeover is similar to the 1995 midterm Republican takeover. This was a vote against Obama, just as 1995 was a vote against Clinton. Both Clinton and Obama have been the victims of real hatred.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on November 10, 2014 at 12:31 pm

      Reasonable. I suspect that the voter enthusiasm that got Democrats to the polls in 2008 and 2012 has waned and the showing will be weak in 2016. The Republicans might win through the apathy of the Democrats.

      • ajmacdonaldjr said, on November 10, 2014 at 4:44 pm

        It’s a constant back and forth with POTUS. The congress is another matter. The Dems held that for 30 years. Interestingly enough, the Dems had POTUS and congress during Clinton’s first term and all they did was cut welfare benefits and reinvent (=privatize) government. The 2 party system is a sham. They both have the same agenda… it’s just that the dems appear to be more compassionate, when, in fact, they are not.

  3. TJB said, on November 7, 2014 at 8:45 pm

    Strangely enough, I favor the GOP for ethical reasons. The Dems have hurt a lot of people. A perfect example is their support of teacher’s unions rather than poor kids in need of an education.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on November 10, 2014 at 12:40 pm

      I’ve looked into the research on whether teacher’s unions hurt, help or are neutral. As one might expect, the research is divided and politicized. I would say that they are like all corporate organizations: sometimes they do harm, sometimes they do good. On the plus side, unions do provide protection for teachers and give us an organized political voice. On the minus side, they suffer the usual woes of such corporate bodies: corruption, misuse of influence, etc.

      Overall, I would say the biggest problem with education is not the unions. Suppose that the unions were instantly disbanded and all their influence vanished. Would schools soon be better funded? Would the disparities in educational quality soon be reduced? Would the quality of teaching soon increase? I would suspect not-after all, the unions do not push budget cuts for education, they do not push for disparities in education, nor do they insist on low quality teaching.

      • T. J. Babson said, on November 10, 2014 at 1:05 pm

        Mike, who gets helped and who gets hurt by this policy?

        Minneapolis public school officials are making dramatic changes to their discipline practices by requiring the superintendent’s office to review all suspensions of students of color.

        The change comes amid intensifying scrutiny of the way Minneapolis public schools treat minority students and in the wake of new data showing black students are 10 times more likely to be sent home than white students.


      • T. J. Babson said, on November 10, 2014 at 1:10 pm

        She calls herself a liberal. Comments, Mike?

  4. Glen Wallace said, on November 11, 2014 at 11:07 pm

    I take it your comment that complainers should either vote or shut up was made more out of frustration than as a serious normative premise.

    If there is indeed something systemically wrong with our republican democracy, as I believe there is, then we need to be open to problem solving ideas regardless of whether those ideas come from individuals who voted or did not.

    I’m inclined to support either a true, direct democracy as practiced by the ancient Greeks or some sort of true aristocracy that I believe Plato envisioned. Perhaps there could even be a hybridization of the two systems whereby referendums could be held on not just local matters but on a national issues as well. Those public referendums could include veto power over the laws made by the aristocrats or the aristocrats themselves in an impeachment referendum.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on November 12, 2014 at 1:14 pm

      Actually, while someone who does not vote has the moral right to still complain, she has certainly lost a degree of moral authority by not participating in the decision making. To use the analogy, if we are voting on what to have for dinner and Sally declines to vote, then she can still complain if things do not go the way she wanted. But, it is fair to point out to Sally that her complaints are undercut a bit by her failure to participate.

      I like direct democracy; but I think there is clearly a role for professional government. For example, voting about what is a safe level of mercury in our food is perhaps not the best way to settle this.

      • Glen Wallace said, on November 13, 2014 at 5:14 pm

        I think the dinner analogy can indeed be a good metaphor for our political system. But, the only way for Sally’s moral authority to be undercut by not voting would be if she were complaining merely about matters of taste. If she, instead, complained about how something was burnt or how some dinner entry was particularly unhealthy or if one of the meat items, such as foie gras, had moral problems relating to how the animal was treated from which it came, then Sally’s not voting would be ad hominem.

        However, at least in the case of the dinner, Sally was given the opportunity to vote specifically on the issues and not be relegated to only being able to vote for a cook every couple of years. And the cooks we get to select from, the politicians, usually never even mention, let alone introduce as legislation, the matters or issues I care most about.

        Rarely do I hear a politician talk about all the problems created by the war on drugs and the associated for profit prison industrial complex — our own drawn out Gulag. Most Americans seem to be largely concerned about their own economic malaise while largely being clueless to its cause. The politicians in turn take advantage of that cluelessness of the constituents by offering only vague platitudes but none of the specific solutions that would materially help the plebs at the expense of plutocrats. And therein lies the root of the problem — we are fundamentally a plutocracy masquerading as a democracy. Could a case then be made that by voting, one is only helping to legitimize the charade? What if an election were held and no one came to vote but the citizens all complained even louder and engaged in civil disobedience? Would that foster the sea change we need?

        • Michael LaBossiere said, on November 14, 2014 at 12:31 pm

          Well, if people vote for foie gras and Sally declines to vote, then she does forfeit some moral authority if she complains that it is on the table. She should have voted against it. But, as you note, whether she votes or not has no bearing on the truth of her claims.

          People are easily misled in such matters since they are rather complicated and there has been a concerted effort to keep people uniformed and deceived about how things work. Sorting out what is one’s best interest and what impact laws and policies will have can be tough. Ideally, we are supposed to be able to trust our elected officials. In general, we cannot. So, we need to vote for people that can be trusted-assuming they would run for office in any numbers.

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