Is American democracy tarnished by an election process that has made a mockery of popular sovereignty? We preach to the world about the importance of core democratic values, but the reality of America’s political process is that candidates for our highest offices avoid the truth and refuse to be held accountable for anything they say while nearly half of our citizens shrug off their responsibility to vote. When the time finally comes for the pageant of Americans casting their ballots on Election Day, no one bothers to verify who we are because our government has decided that proving we are eligible citizens violates the right to vote (see: Worries Over Illegals Committing Voter Fraud Miss the Point). Is this the model for representative government that we believe other nations should adopt?
Could Americans care less about popular sovereignty?
Shelve the pointless arguments over whether our political system is a democracy or a republic. What matters is that we are charged with the responsibility to choose our public officials and we do a shabby job of it. We take pride in democratic values like majority rule and fostering the common good, but nearly half of us don’t get off the couch and make the minimal effort required to vote, the one simple act that makes those core values real.
Popular sovereignty means so little to our citizens that less than 60% of the voting age population exercised its right to vote in the 2008 presidential election,¹ a turnout hailed as historic. Considering that legislators can do at least as much damage as the president, the low turnout for congressional elections is a travesty. Census Bureau figures show that 42.3% of eligible voters reported voting in 2002, 43.6% in 2006, and only 41.8% in 2010,² a stunningly low figure as we lost our jobs and homes to recession and irresponsible policy decisions on Capitol Hill.
Presidential candidates mock our core democratic values.
Why we do we have to fact check what the candidates for our nation’s highest office say during public appearances and their pre-election debates? They ask us to trust them with the responsibility of holding their finger over the nuclear button, but we don’t know if we can believe a single word that spills from their mouths. We throw job candidates back on the street for misstatements during an interview or mistakes on resumes, but when it comes to electing our president we are content to shake our heads and mutter about lying politicians and backing the lesser of two evils.
Core democratic values like popularity sovereignty are meaningless when candidates for office deny us the ability to make an informed decision. There is no such thing as representative government when we don’t know what we are voting for. Instead, the right to vote becomes a futile exercise and the notion of popular sovereignty becomes a farce.
Is the common good irrelevant at election time?
The notion of representative government ensuring the common good fares little better than our other values. Public officials ensnared by special interests ensure that much of what the electorate hears are the skewed visions of a vocal minority. Why are we discussing a grant of immunity to illegal immigrants and fighting over the health care bill’s funding of birth control when the economy is sinking, debt is escalating, and the jobless rate is rising?* Because special interests make those issues count. Their demands take precedence over the common good.
Media bias is our excuse to learn nothing.
Media bias is a favorite excuse for not learning the truth behind campaign trail hyperbole. We all know the lament. The liberal media distorts everything while the lone conservative news powerhouse stands alone, a bastion of fairness and honesty.
Non-profit media outlets are few and far between. News is money. Why would anyone expect the media to present unbiased views when acrimony, bias, and conflict are what lures viewers? Why do we get angry over media bias when we admit that we can’t believe a word we hear from the candidates we are blaming the media for misrepresenting?
Unbiased information is out there for those who seek it. As much as we complain about Washington wasting our tax dollars there are federal agencies that do good work. Our premier watchdog agency, the Government Accountability Office, releases reports each and every day. The Congressional Budget Office tells us as much about the state of the economy and the cost of legislation as we could ever want to know. Federal agencies have inspector generals with their own websites and long lists of audit reports. The information we need is there, free for the taking. Refusing to accept the responsibility for informing ourselves and complaining that the media sources and celebrity commentators we resort to are biased reduces us to the same standard of mediocrity with which we are regarded by those we place in office.
*Note: the day after this post was published the September employment report showed that the unemployment rate dropped to 7.8%. For more on that, see: No Government Conspiracy, No Jobs, No Retirement Security.