What is Democracy? (63): Rule of the People, and Not Just of a Part of the People

Voter turnout rates are a constant worry for proponents of democracy. Wherever voting is not compulsory – and that covers the majority of democracies – large numbers of voters choose not to exercise their right to vote, ever. (And it is a right, by the way). Even if it’s wrong to take this as a rejection of democracy – it’s quite possible for an individual to like living in a democracy and at the same time choose not to participate (he or she may count on others to make it work) – it’s not a sign of a strong and widespread endorsement either. It’s probably just indifference and lack of enthusiasm for democracy. But why should we worry about this? Why would we, ideally, want to see higher rates of participation? Is it not enough for the highly committed to vote? Can’t we leave the others alone and stop moralizing?

Many would answer those latter questions affirmatively, and say that there’s really nothing to worry about for one of these three reasons:

  1. There are those who argue that “the common people” should not vote anyway because they are ignorant. So it’s good if they don’t. As a matter of fact, turnout rates should even be lower than they are today given the general lack of knowledge.
  2. Others say that it’s not the people’s fault that they don’t vote; they don’t because they don’t have a choice and because they don’t have a choice they shouldn’t be pushed into voting. Politicians are all alike, at least in their actions, and no single politician accurately represents all the different opinions that single voters may hold.
  3. And then there are those who claim that voting doesn’t make a difference because there are simply too many votes and a single one almost never tips the scales. Rational people, they say, have better things to do with their time and should be free not to vote.

Here’s a short and hasty reply to these “stay at home” arguments, with some links to more elaborate replies:

  1. Is it really so difficult to understand that ignorance – to the extent that it is common – is the result of rather than a reason for non-participation, and that participation creates knowledge?
  2. Also, we could perhaps ask the populations of Iraq and Afghanistan, or the millions of US citizens without health insurance whether voting for one guy rather than the other does indeed make no difference at all. And to the extent that there is sometimes a lack of difference, we should make the case to politicians that rather than chasing the median voter they should take their roles as “authors and not actors” more seriously.
  3. Finally, isn’t voting about more than bean counting? Even if your individual vote doesn’t tip the scales, can’t you have other reasons to vote? E.g. express yourself, make yourself heard, form associations, shape you identity? Etc. The “drop in the ocean” argument against voting can also be recast as an argument in favor of more power for local and small scale government: if a single vote doesn’t make a lot of difference, then instead of telling people not to vote, we can just as well change the denominator: reduce the total population that decides a certain matter by making democracy more local.

Another problem with the “stay at home” arguments: if large numbers of people don’t vote, then they will have to abide by laws that they didn’t approve, that are tailored to the interests of others and that are likely damaging to their own interests. There are two ways of replying to this:

  • Either people will decide to vote if they see that their nonparticipation starts to hurt them – as long as they don’t participate they accept the consequences.
  • Or some people ruling over others is something that happens all the time in a system of majority vote and that is not limited to the situation in which groups don’t vote. However, majorities and minorities are always different – depending on the issue at stake – whereas non-voters tend to be an unchanging block. The latter always bear the brunt. For example, if poor people tend not to vote, do they really have a right to complain when non-poor voters approve the dismantling of the welfare state?

Even for those who do vote, there are some risks attached to the presence of large and possibly increasing numbers of non-voters. If a lot of people decide not to vote, then why should we have to retain democracy for those who do vote? Maybe non-voters are right in their rejection of democracy and then we should get rid of it altogether. That wouldn’t necessarily be in the interest of those who vote.

Those are some of the reasons to worry about voter turnout rates.


2 thoughts on “What is Democracy? (63): Rule of the People, and Not Just of a Part of the People”

  1. There are many different points to make here. I will collect some of them in the following points:
    1. A democratic process should make people interested/ energize them to think, maybe the word here is: force them to think. By forcing people to make choices, they might feel challenged and might (in the best of circumstances) become interested in the political process.
    2. Democracy can only be sustainable if it is much more decentralized and generalized (e.g. creating more economic democracy). This is much related to the first point, in particular because having much more control and independence in the economic sphere (which takes up a large chunk of daily time/activity) creates a feeling (corresponding then to reality) of having the real opportunity to shape one’s future. The fact that people are so cynical on the political process is probably related to the lack of control in the workplace.
    3. It is true that there is a striking lack of real choices. Boundaries of what one can say or propose are clearly visible. The result is the emergence of frustration in the worst form, that is extreme rightwing (pseudo-fascist) movements and nationalistic tendencies which show the need to re-politize the political. Here, the left is severely letting opportunities pass by, in particular because the social democratic parties form an intrinsic part of the system/consensus.


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