Volume 75, Number 28 | Nov. 30 - Dec. 06, 2005

A special Villager supplement

Elections are seeing more money and fewer voters

By William D. Stricklin

The New York City primary election held on Sept. 13 attracted an anemic 15 percent of the electorate — less than 39 percent of whom could be bothered to cast a ballot in the general election on Nov. 8. In last year’s fiery presidential election — with the attendant circus of books, films, music, debates, celebrities, hundreds of millions of dollars spent, and the stakes being so clearly what they were — only 60 percent of the electorate cast a ballot nationwide. What is going on in these United States?

Upon our nation’s founding, the right to vote was restricted to white male landowners; the franchise of American citizenship was theirs, and solely theirs. One of the overriding themes of American history has been the constant and sometimes bloody struggle to open up that franchise to an increasingly greater number of Americans. Sociologists have noted for some time now the decreasing tendency of Americans to actively participate in civic life. The reasons for this diminishment are not without debate; less debatable is what it portends for our beloved democracy.

Coincidental or not, the role of big money as a factor in American politics can be traced directly to the advent of television and its use as a conduit to the voter, or potential voter. Television has had the effect of moving political activity away from people’s lives, off of the streets and onto the airwaves. This necessitates the need for image consultants, message consultants and all of the artifice that we now associate with our political campaigns. In order to be considered viable, a political candidate must first raise money — anywhere from tens of thousands of dollars for a local race, to tens of millions for a statewide race and hundreds of millions for a national campaign. The ability to raise considerable sums of money is now considered the “first primary”: lose it, and you go no further. When asked why he robbed banks, Willie Sutton replied, “That’s where the money is.” Similarly, when politicians require large sums of money, they turn to where the loot is readily available: corporate boardrooms and — in New York City — real estate developers.

As pernicious as it is, big money is not the sole source of cynicism affecting the American electorate. From Vietnam to Watergate, right up to the present, Americans have numerous reasons to be distrustful of their government. The downturn in voter participation is an expression of the futility that many people believe results from political activity.

While some see this trend as negative and unhealthy for our democracy, others see no problem whatsoever. With fewer citizens paying attention to political campaigns, politicians need only to target an increasingly smaller universe of voters. For well-financed candidates, this can mean that election to office is all but assured. If more Americans paid attention and were more active politically it might decrease the power and influence of the consultants and advisers one finds herding around political candidates these days.

At what point do we find ourselves with a government that lacks legitimacy? When a president is elected with 32 percent of the vote? When a governor is swept into office with less of a majority than that? The problems confronting our nation are multiplying: a disastrous war, an increasingly squeezed middle class, a working class in crisis, while the super-rich and their corporate lackeys wield more and more power over our lives. We must ask the question, “Whose government is this?”

Stricklin is president, Village Independent Democrats club

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