The self-fulfilling prophecy of polarization
We need active consent of the governed
In a 1944 radio address to the American people, FDR said, “Nobody will ever deprive the American people of the right to vote except the American people themselves — and the only way they could do that is by not voting at all.”
Regardless of the failures of government and the political system, democracy possesses an elegant irony in that ultimately, the accountability for the system resides with the electorate — by the consent of those who are governed. We can therefore be reasonably certain that the chaotic election, gridlocked government, and polarized body politick are ultimately our fault.
The final point, about polarization, is perhaps the most curious. For years, the American people have witnessed a political system unwilling to compromise, such as in the case of immigration reform, and often arguing over reality itself, in the case of climate change. Yet the notion that we are now simply Roman voyeurs watching political gladiators engage in bloodsport of their own choice is absurd, given that we built the Colosseum and defined the rules of the game.
Given that the last election before 2008 to exceed 60 percent voter turnout occurred nearly five decades ago, and that the more extreme elements vote most frequently, it is no wonder that politicians are more interested in the margins than the center ground. During the 2014 election, for example, nearly 65 percent of the electorate did not vote, meaning that members of Congress have little incentive beyond honorable obligation to represent that 65 percent.
Yet that population holds the balance of power and the means to bridge the divide. A Pew poll found that only 21 percent of the voting-age population is ‘consistently’ liberal or conservative, whereas nearly double that number has mixed opinions. The ‘consistent,’ or ‘ideological,’ voters are more likely to show up on election day. The same poll showed that moderate voters are less likely to show up on election day, so partisan minorities exercise outsized control over elected officials. In a vicious cycle, candidates may then seek to increase turnout from the margins and neglect moderate stances, ultimately discouraging more moderates from voting at the next opportunity.
This phenomenon should not be surprising. Recent voter ID laws such as that currently being challenged in North Carolina are increasing the activation energy for a voting-age individual to actually exercise his or her political voice, much as poll taxes and literacy tests were instituted to disenfranchise voters and thereby reduce the size of the electorate. This tactic is aided by poorly publicized registration deadlines.
Ideally, a candidate would be elected through persuading a majority of their constituency through rhetorical strength. Cynically, a candidate would be elected by pandering to a majority of their constituency. Currently, a candidate would ignore the majority of their constituency, preferring instead to frighten the margins to boost turnout and dishearten the rest of the electorate to reduce it.
In the past, I respected abstention as a valid option for voters to take. I used to rationalize that life is busy and that the political system is discouraging, and I repeatedly excused peers when, out of cynicism or disinterest, they sacrificed their political voice for expediency. Now, I believe that to refuse to vote is to shirk one’s duty as a citizen, to shy away from making a decision on the individuals who, for better or worse, affect millions of lives. To do so is unconscionable. While forcing oneself to vote may not necessarily affect this election, as more individuals do so, it would have the cumulative effect of driving politicians away from partisan corners and into the center ground.
As Associate Justice Brandeis wrote, “The most important political office is that of the private citizen.” It’s long past time we start respecting that office and do our job, if we ever want our representatives to do theirs.