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Are We Competent To Vote?

This article is more than 10 years old.

Now it’s up to the people. The time has come for the electorate to speak, for the American polity to play its fundamental role in democratic self-government, which is to vote in a national election. Our cacophony of political forces and actors must pause for the voters to take over, to dictate to the rest of our political system. Ah, the purity, the relief, of it!

The Constitution begins with “We, the people. . .” We are, or aspire to be, a Lincolnian society “of, by and for the people.” The basis of our legitimacy as a nation is the popular will.

Yet the founding fathers were very skeptical about such an ideal in actual practice, entertaining serious doubts about the assignment of such an important responsibility to the masses. And there is plenty of experience since to perpetuate the question of whether the electorate is capable of fulfilling this crucial authority.

We are a separate, contentious, polarized nation today, at odds with itself. There is no E Pluribus Unum.

Particularly now. There have long been concerns about voter apathy, low levels of voting, and about how poorly informed voters are. But it’s gotten worse. The multiple obstacles and disincentives now pressing upon voters in their role of anchoring our model of representative democracy constitute a serious threat. The total impact of all that goes on during an American presidential campaign has a better chance of victimizing than empowering the electorate. Has our reliance on ourselves as the ultimate self-governors become illusory or feckless? Not that there’s a better idea around, but are we up to it?

Here are the forces arrayed against informed voting capable of fulfilling our mandate:

-- The dysfunction — not to say corruption — of our major political institutions make it less attractive for the electorate to do its job.

-- The intense complexity of the most demanding policy issues is very difficult for average citizens to penetrate. We are intimidated, and spooked. How can we be expected to understand this density, to make rational judgments, when many of our expert leaders don’t?

-- Globalization, driven headlong and unpredictably by technology and economics, contributes to general anxieties of people about disorder, danger, and uncertainty in the world and how their own lives will be affected.

-- The negative, exploitative nature of our political life either alienates potential voters or invites them to ideological excess.

-- Moneyarchy. Our society is increasingly behaving according to the devotions and dictates of money. Transactions in every sector are increasingly determined by who has more money, distorting and subjugating other pursuits which fulfill our lives, including democratic participation.

-- A betrayal of the truth in our public discourse, driven to appalling excesses during election campaigns, undermines social morale and behavior. Not only is it a common practice among our highest-ranking political leaders to violate truth-telling by factual disregard, manipulation, deceit and outright lying, but there seems to be an acquiescence, at least no outrage, on the part of the general public to this phenomenon.

-- A growing disparity gap in American life has been attracting more empirical evidence and more nervous attention throughout the current election cycle. Are we as a nation, in a time of economic distress, less empathetic, more selfish and less generous? Do we care as much about fairness? Enough to influence decisions in the voting booth?

Confronting this cornucopia of adversaries to what we might call competent voting, it seems pertinent to consider what influence our traditional national values have in this situation. What truly are our American values? Are they real or illusory? Which are shared, which divided? And which of them could be applied to reinforce American political institutions, including elections?

Certainly common commitment to spiritual as well as material values, to truthfulness and to fairness, for example, are profoundly important to America’s moral fabric. Any decline in them should be of concern to voters. Yet how directly to support such principles when addressing specific and limited ballot box choices can be perplexing. But the effort should be made.

Where such an effort might be most valuable is in seeking choices which would contribute to America achieving a common good, a shared goal. We are a separate, contentious, polarized nation today, at odds with itself. There is no E Pluribus Unum. We have too little we steadfastly agree about, no national ethos which sustains us as a whole. And this can be fatal. We need not abandon those values which divide us but to concentrate on strengthening those which can unite us — to try to transform anomie into comity. By choosing candidates and policies with promise to nurture our entire nation, we may help resuscitate the quality of our voting so that it justifies the assigned role of the people in our democratic aspiration.

This program aired on October 5, 2012. The audio for this program is not available.


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