What is Democracy? (34): A Civic Responsibility

In most democracy, voting is a right and not a legal duty. Hence, political participation is less than 100%, sometimes a lot less. Some people vote, and vote only in some elections. The number of people who vote is called voter turnout. Voter turnout is the percentage of eligible voters who cast a ballot in an election. In U.S. Presidential elections, for example, turnout is usually between 50 and 60%, with slightly more in the 2008 election which saw many first-time African-American voters vote for Obama.

However, even if voting is not a legal duty in most democracies, it is generally considered to be a moral duty and a civic responsibility. A high voter turnout is generally considered desirable for many different reasons, and most democracies spend a lot of energy on “get the vote out” efforts. One reason for these efforts is the fact that low turnouts lead to unequal representation among various parts of the population. Policies will reflect this and will be to the benefit of those who vote. This can result in discrimination.

High turnout is generally seen as evidence of the legitimacy of the system and low turnout as a symptom of disenchantment, indifference and ultimately of the demise of the system. Of course, a single vote doesn’t make a lot of difference – except in very close races – and hence it’s normal that people feel indifferent. An individual, when faced with a monolithic monster of a state, threatening and distant at the same time, feels insignificant, like a grain of sand on the beach. Powerlessness becomes a fact of life and people retreat from democratic politics. A single voice is not noticed in the noise of millions and is reduced to insignificance. The state does not react to individual claims as quickly as it is supposed to, if it reacts at all. The bottom line is that individuals or small groups cannot hurt the state. Their votes are less than pinpricks. The only elements in society able to influence the centralized state are large, national and centralized pressure groups or political parties that are just as distant from the citizens as the state and equally insensitive to individuals’ claims.

But there is a solution. Federalism and decentralization encourage participation and counteract alienation and a feeling of distance between the citizens and the state.

Apathy and indifference are also the consequence of the impossibility in many democracies to vote for issues. When people are allowed to take decisions on issues, they will be more eager to debate the issues and to inform themselves on the pros and cons of possible solutions. Relying exclusively on representation creates apathy because people can only vote on persons. Take a look here for the reasons why representation creates indifference.

Other ways to promote civic responsibility are better education, a well functioning civil society in which free associations can mobilize citizens, modern information technologies such as the Internet etc.

Greg Mankiw has a different take on the problem of voter turnout:

Voting is a civic responsibility, they tell us, because democracy works best when everyone participates. … But relying on your fellow citizens to make the right choice … can be perfectly rational. If you really don’t know enough to cast an intelligent vote, you should be eager to let your more informed neighbors make the decision.

Eligible voters who are less informed about the candidates than their fellow citizens choose to stay at home, knowing the outcome will be more reliable without their participation. By not voting, they are doing themselves and everyone else a favor. If the ill-informed were all induced to vote, they would merely add random noise to the outcome.

What’s the evidence that this theory is right, that nonvoters are less informed than voters? Studies of voter turnout have found that education is the single best predictor of who votes: The highly educated turn out more often than less educated. A classic argument for why democracies need widespread public education is that education makes people better voters.

Granted. But rather than encouraging the less educated to stay home, as Mankiw seems to do, we should perhaps try to give them a better education.

What is Democracy? (31): A Pathological Attention Seeker, Not an Inflatable Parliament

The death of democracy is not likely to be an assassination from ambush. It will be a slow extinction from apathy, indifference, and undernourishment. Robert M. Hutchins

Democracy is not being, it is becoming. It is easily lost, but never finally won. William Hastie

A democracy, contrary to any other form of government, requires continuous and massive popular attention. In other words, it requires a deep-rooted, strongly held, and widely shared democratic political culture. The large majority of the people have to believe in the moral, practical and theoretical value of democracy as a form of government. If this is not the case, then democracy inevitably dies. The people of a democracy may be divided on almost everything, but they must be united in the belief that democracy is the best way to resolve or contain their divisions; the best way to find the best and the most reasonable solutions to common problems, if such solutions are possible, and to avoid escalation of conflicts, if solutions are impossible.

Democracy has to be created and maintained everyday all over again. Every day, the voters have to control the government, to judge it, to take an interest in it. Democracy does not arise nor survive automatically and it’s not just inherited and passed on to the next generation without any effort. It has to be fought for, over and over again, against all kinds of internal and external elements, not the least of which is the fighters own fatigue and indifference. There is not a moment’s rest.

Democracy is first of all a conviction and a state of mind. Institutions such as elections or parliaments are relatively easy to install and even maintain. They will survive even when support dwindles. Institutions can even be imposed. It is much more difficult to create real political participation, because this implies the existence of political convictions and a democratic culture. This culture entails not only strong pro-democratic convictions and the willingness to actively participate in politics, but also respect for institutions that protect democracy, such as the rule of law, the judiciary and human rights.

The same is true when trying to promote democracy abroad. When engaging in such a project, the political culture is the most important thing to change. The effort to change political convictions should be directed in the first place at influential groups in society, such as the media, the military, the police, the judicial system, and the business class etc. It is very important that these people accept the values and institutions of democracy because they can do a lot of harm if they don’t. If they embrace a democratic political culture, then chances are high that the democratic institutions can function adequately and can help to generate a more widespread democratic culture.

But, ultimately, the large majority of the people has to be convinced, because democracy is the rule of the people, and the rule of the people is impossible without massive support. Elections can be imposed and can even be relatively fair – on the condition that the various elites have adopted the values of democracy – but the convictions and the support of the majority of the population cannot be imposed. This often requires a very long learning process and a process of discussion, persuasion, reform, education and construction.

The best way to create support is to guarantee the adequate functioning of democracy. Experience with a well-functioning democracy – even if it is a half-empty democracy – has a positive influence on the political views and behavior of the people.

Foreign intervention or imposition of “instant democracy” is indeed like “dropping an inflatable parliament (or pneumatic parliament) from a bomber plane”, in the words of Peter Sloterdijk. This will at best create an empty shell, a democracy which is indeed nothing but air. Democracy can only be the result of the will and activity of the people, although an empty shell is often better than nothing because it can create its own momentum. Democratic activity has a tendency to create its own support. Once there are democratic institutions, even institutions in which only a handful of people participate, we often see that people tend to be attracted by these institutions.

Of course, as indicated by the second quote above, democracy as attention seeker is an ideal. It’s never finished, not only in the sense that it has to be remade day by day, but also in the sense that citizen participation can always be improved. Many citizens don’t participate, even in the best existing democracies. Or they participate less than others and therefore have less and unequal influence.