V. Turnout (and turnoff)

Annie has been out with her fellow local Democrats the last few weekends, staffing a table and distributing literature about Social Security. She tells me that George Bush is preparing to do terrible things to Social Security, and I'm sure she's right. The table is mostly staffed by people who, like Annie, are already getting Social Security, so I guess their interest is understandable.

At the other end of the voting-age spectrum, my son Andrew was home from college for a weekend recently and he brought his friend Danny with him. Over dinner, the conversation turned to politics. Neither Andrew nor Danny voted in the 2004 election.

"What's the point?" Danny explained. "There's no difference. Like they're both for the war, and they're both for the economy -- well duuhh, like who isn't for the economy?"

"And Social Security!" my son chimed in. "Don't forget social security. Very important. I can't sleep, I spend so much time thinking about social security."

"Yeah!" Danny agreed. "The way things are going, are we gonna live long enough to collect social security?"

"Anyway," Andrew concluded, "we're going to school in Vermont, and we're both from New York, and they were both gonna go for Kerry no matter what -- so even if there was a difference, our votes wouldn't matter."

Once the subject got off the election and onto what you might call the content of politics -- what people so oddly, and distantly, refer to as "issues" -- Andrew and Danny were both full of opinions and strong feelings. "Apathetic" is certainly the wrong word for them. Cynical, yes, and quite unimpressed by the candidates and the major parties. But apathetic? Anything but.

Andrew and Danny are not alone. Young people between the ages of 18 and 29 turned out in larger numbers in 2004 than they did in 2000, but the increase merely kept pace with the larger turnout among all ages of voters -- that is, young people as a percentage of the overall vote held steady and did not increase. This is too bad for the Democrats, since according to exit polls, the young people who did vote went for Kerry over Bush by a 54-44 ratio. If the Democrats had been able to turn out young voters as a percentage of the population in larger numbers, they might have made it.

But they didn't. About 51% of the 18-30s turned out, considerably below the sixty-plus percent of the over-30s. Among voters 18-24 years old -- Andrew and Danny's cohort -- estimates of turnout range from a high of 44% to a low of 37% (precise figures are not to be had since we have to rely on exit polls for this information).

As with older voters, voting is heavily class-linked -- kids from the higher social classes are more likely to turn out than their less privileged coevals, although this effect is difficult to quantify precisely.

These younger voters -- or rather, non-voters -- are more generous and enlightened, by my standards (and Annie's), than most of their elders. A recent poll found that "69% of 18-29 year-old voters supported gay marriage or legal civil unions for gay and lesbian couples, compared to 60% of 30-44 and 45-59 year-old voters, and 54% of those 60 and older.... Between 1994 and 2000, the percentage of 18-25 year-olds who agree that blacks 'have gotten less than they deserve,' rose 12 percentage points to 38%," and "60% of 15-25 year olds agreed with the statement 'Immigrants today strengthen our country because of their hard work,' compared to 51% of 26-37 year-olds, 49% of 38-56 year-olds, and 42% of those 57 and over."

Yet it seems to be difficult to persuade them to show up for the Democrat. (The more right-wing younger voters are more likely to turn up at the polls, as is the case with their elders.) The Kerry campaign tried very hard to "turn out" the youth vote, but the outcome was disappointing in comparison with the effort expended.

There is another important constituency, thought to belong as of right to the Democrats, which exhibits a similar under-participation: African-Americans. About 39% of black voters bothered to show up in 2000. The rate went up to 47% -- still less than half -- in 2004, but astonishingly, a sizable number of these new voters went for Bush rather than Kerry, so the increased participation did the Democrats considerably less good than they had hoped. Reliable numbers on the age distribution of black voters are hard to come by, but it is generally agreed that younger blacks, like their white counterparts, vote less than their elders. Churchgoers -- very numerous in the black community, and often receptive to a social-conservative approach -- are more likely to vote than Sunday-morning slugabeds. For years, it's been an article of faith among Democrats that increased turnout gives them a lift; but apparently it ain't necessarily so, or not any more, anyway.

But let's get back to the no-shows. We understand why the people who voted did so. But what the hell is the matter with these people who stay home on Election Day? Why don't they vote? Don't they know it's their duty? Don't they care about their own fate? They must be fools, right?

That's pretty much the conventional wisdom. Every four years we're bombarded with reproaches and apocalyptic moral exhortations -- 2004's slogan "Vote or Die" differed from the usual only in its over-the-top silliness. If you didn't vote, you can't complain, the civics teachers and editorialists solemnly preach. In fact, if you didn't vote, this terrible situation we're in is all your fault.

But hold it. Let's look at this from another angle. Are consumers to blame because they don't want any of the dreck that's on the shelf? Am I to blame for the treacly nastiness of soft drinks, because I don't buy them? Am I to blame for the idiocy of SUVs because I don't own a car?

Voting is really quite easy -- though not, admittedly, as easy as it should be -- and if people don't vote, perhaps they have their reasons. Rather than preaching at them, we might do better to take non-voting seriously as a political act -- as a kind of vote for "none of the above." Mr. None-Of-The-Above received more votes in the 2004 election than either Bush or Kerry, so his supporters constitute a very substantial plurality. Maybe we should ask them to explain their thinking. Maybe they can shed some light on what's missing from American politics -- and why, as a consequence, they are missing too. Non-voters are a little like the canary in the coal mine -- their absence is a sign there's not enough oxygen in the air. Perhaps if we gave them a little respectful attention instead of the reflexive, schoolmasterly scoldings that fall around their ears like hailstones every four years, when the Democrats think they need them -- perhaps if we just shut up and paid attention, we might learn something.

* * *

Of course, not all non-voters are young, or black. Doug Pilsudski is only a little younger than Annie. He teaches in an urban high school. He's been a non-voter, he says, "since Johnson versus Goldwater."

Hold it. You weren't old enough to vote that year.

[Laughs] Got me. Yeah, but that's the year I figured it out. I just knew Johnson wasn't going to end the war. And I was right, remember? Far as I was concerned, that was the only issue that year. Just like 2004. Sixty-four to '04, forty years later and the same old story.

You didn't vote last year?

I voted for the Green party, matter of fact. I didn't want anybody to think I was indifferent about the war, so I figured a Green Party vote would tell 'em what I thought about that. A protest vote against the war. Voted for Nader in 2000, just to make my liberal friends mad.

You don't regret it, obviously.

Naaah. Not that he would have been any better, I guess, but it made a statement.

Your friends must have argued that you were making a statement at the expense of your interests...

Oh come on. There's no difference. It's like choosing the nicer slaveowner. The nicer master. Basically, this kind of so-called choice -- it just fools people. Keeps 'em in the system. Like Clinton -- you know, in a way, Clinton was a more effective right-winger than Bush. He never got any flak from the Democrats for the stuff he was doing, because...

Because he was a Democrat!

Yeah. Like, the Democrats are all worked up because Bush wants to destroy Social Security, but they didn't say a word when Clinton threw all those people off welfare. So Bush does it and they yell, and Clinton does it and they don't.

What could get you out to vote for a Democrat? Anything? If Kerry had been really against the war, really convinced you...

[Long pause] Maybe. I'd be hard to convince. The Democrats have a long record, you know. But yeah, maybe. I mean, that's what people are gonna remember about '04 -- where you stood on the war.

Do you think the parties are becoming even more similar?

Oh sure. Ever since -- oh, since the end of the Vietnam war. The left just folded. They thought they'd won this great victory, and they stopped fighting, and pretty soon they lost everything they had won. Nobody had to pay any attention to 'em anymore, so the parties climbed right back into bed together.

Do you see any difference at all? Between the parties, I mean.

Abortion. Maybe. Though Hillary is busy revising that. Nothing else. Back when Bill Clinton was running the first time, he seemed to be better on Haiti -- we have a big Haitian community here, so that's a big deal for me -- but as soon as he got in office he turned around on that. And all the Democrats voted for that No Child Left Behind law -- that's been a complete disaster in the schools, you know.

Have you been following this Schiavo case -- the woman with the feeding tube, in Florida...

Oh yeah. Yeah. The Democrats are getting real scared now of the right to life people, too. Once abortion is their only issue they'll start to cave in on that too.

You wouldn't agree that Roe v. Wade is a good enough reason to vote for the Democrats?

You mean, even if they do keep defending it? You really think they will? But you know, even if they don't, if the Republicans really move against abortion they'll be in big trouble. People won't stand for it. All my liberal friends tell me I should vote for the Democrats because of abortion. But I think they're just fooling themselves. No, lying to themselves. It's not kind to say that, but it's the truth.

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