November 21, 2014


She deserved better

That was the title given a letter to the Opinion page of the Winston-Salem Journal in which Leon Martin pointed out that if every Democrat had voted for Kay Hagan and every Republican had voted for Thom Tillis, Hagan would have won by 754,670 votes.   Instead Ms. Hagan lost by 45,673 votes.   He goes on to suggest that the American voter is sometimes hard to figure out.   For example, raising the minimum wage gets about a 70 percent favorable rating in polls, as does some form of gun control.   But voters continue to send back to Congress people who consistently vote against both.   Why?   Are, as Jonathan  Gruber suggested recently, Americans are just too dumb to figure out what’s in their own economic self-interest?    It’s certainly not a new thought.   Years ago, a book entitled “What’s the Matter with Kansas?” summed up the Kansas voters as folks who vote their values rather than their economic self-interest and that the Republicans deliberately catered to those impulses because their economic politics sure were not going to benefit the poor folks.   Mr. Martin is implying that North Carolina voters aren’t that much different from Kansas voters, who probably aren’t that much different from the rest of Americans who voted in the midterms.


     Why do Americans so frequently vote against their own economic interests?    The full answer gets complicated and the more complicated it gets, the harder it is to understand.   The simple answer is that  most value-oriented issues are much easier to understand and are much more reflective of core attitudes that voters take into the booth with them.   Many of these attitudes may be simplistic and, I believe, largely uninformed.  At the core of most of the value-oriented positions is that any other position is a denial of some religious tenet or an infringement upon freedom.   These hard-core attitudes will not change, but the question arises whether they reflect the majority will or not.   Policies are not set on the basis of the results of polls.  They are formulated and implemented on the basis of the outcome of elections.    If those who disagree with value-oriented voting are the majority and don’t vote, they are abdicating their responsibility and will be ruled by the minority.   That is not what a vigorous democracy is all about.  But, if the recent midterms are any indication, that’s what America is becoming, a nation that is anti-government and pro-special interests regardless of how narrow.   Because I once worked for her Dad, I was sorry to see Senator Mary Landrieu support the Keystone pipeline because there is no other reason to do so, in my opinion, than that it represented the consensus of her constituency.   Nonetheless, she was clearly acting in a way her constituency wants and the position of the majority in this case is certainly economic.    So, a conundrum arises.  In a representative democracy, our elected officials are supposed to arrive at their positions based on independent judgment, of which constituency preferences are certainly one factor.   The Founding Fathers created a bicameral form of representation to deal with this situation.   As Jefferson said,  “The Senate is the saucer which cools the hot tea of the House.”   What he neglected to add is that the dregs left in the bottom of the cup could be gridlock.


     So, the point of all this is whether there should be compulsory voting in order to ensure that the majority will dominates the body politic.   The only compelling argument I can come up with to oppose compulsory voting is that the majority will is frequently feared as likely to turn into mob rule,  Nonetheless, there are many reasons why compulsory voting would be beneficial and some countries have tried it and kept it; some have tried it and abandoned it; and some, like us, regard compulsory voting as anti-democratic.   There is a wonderful web site produced by the Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance that explains the history of voter turnout and the advantages and disadvantages of compulsory voting.    Anyone interested in this issue should pay it a visit.  For me, compulsory voting is a necessary ingredient of democracy.    I must be reflecting my fascination with classical history because the ancient Athenians used a police force manned by slaves to round up citizens and get them to the Phyx hill where they voted.    The police used a marvelous technique.   They would encircle groups of citizens with ropes dyed red and slowly walk toward the Phyx.   The threat of being smeared with red dye was enough to ensure a quorum.       

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