How Americans Vote

Alvin Lowi, Jr.

November 22, 2003

The Vanishing Voter?

In his new book, The Vanishing Voter: Public Involvement in an Age of Uncertainty (Knopf, 2002), Thomas E. Patterson poses the question “Where Have All the Voters Gone?”  If anybody can answer this question, Mr. Patterson should be the one. He is the Bradlee Professor of Government and the Press at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. In addition, he is the co-director of the Vanishing Voter Project at Harvard University’s Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy, which is generously funded by the Pew Charitable Trust. According to the project’s web site:

“The Vanishing Voter Project seeks to reinvigorate the presidential campaign through research-based proposals designed to improve its structure. The project has the goal of broadening and deepening citizens’ involvement in the presidential selection process.”

Apparently, the academic establishment as exemplified by Prof. Patterson’s province is apprehensive that declining public support for the elected head of state is weakening the institution of political government and is undermining its control over the population. As the political establishment goes, so goes the academic establishment.

When Mr. Patterson says he wants to find out where all the voters went, he is expressing concern over shrinking participation in political elections. Why is the number of citizens showing up at the polls on schedule so important? It is because citizen participation in the political process is the main determinant of the legitimacy of the government that supports “clients” and other dependents such as Harvard academicians.

The diminution of political participation in our so-called “democratic” society raises the level of uncertainty as to the winner of the mace. Low turnouts at the polls cloud the election of the president and commander-in-chief. In a game where the winner takes all, ambiguity is worse than losing. In a “one-man-one-vote” political democracy, a person is allowed only one chance to be on the winning side, but the winning side gets a monopoly of power over all until the next election. As a result, resentment and resignation are inevitable consequences. Rancor over the presidential election of 2000 is a case in point, never mind the fact that the national popular vote count is not a constitutional criterion for the election of American presidents.

To discover why they are disengaging from elections, Patterson’s project interviewed nearly 100,000 Americans during the 2000 election campaign. This evidence combined with polling data from earlier elections established that voters are definitely disappearing from the political scene. Patterson found voter turnout declined almost continuously from before 1960 past 2000. Disappointing at the time, the turnout for the 1960 presidential election was less than 65 percent of the adult population. That figure fell to only 51 percent in 2000, up from 49 percent in 1996. In the off-year elections of 2002, a mere 18 percent turned out for the congressional primaries with only 39 percent showing up for the November general election.

Patterson also reports sharp drops in the numbers of households listening to the October presidential debates. For example, in 1960, 60 percent of the nation’s television sets were tuned to the broadcasts. In 2000, viewers of those broadcasts had declined to less than 30 percent of the television households. Halftime commercials on Monday Night Football draw a bigger audience. This drop the public’s interest in political campaigns correlates with the declining numbers of voters turning out at the polls.

What Is the Nature of Governmental Authority in a Political Democracy When a Majority of Qualified Electors Shuns the Polls?

Patterson asks rhetorically, “What’s going on here? Why is the bottom dropping out on electoral participation?” These questions impart an incongruous sense of urgency to a presumably academic research project. However, the charter of the “Vanishing Voter” study betrays this benign objective and seeks an active political role instead, namely to “reinvigorate” presidential elections. Apparently, burgeoning campaign expenditures for lobbying and media exposure by all political factions is not enough. Academic institutions have been drafted into the campaign even as media outlays for political promotion have grown exponentially. Campaign expenses now exceed the national budget at the beginning of the Civil War and still public interest in political campaigns and elections declines.

In a different context, advertising pioneer P. T. Barnum complained to his marketing staff:

“Half of our advertising budget is wasted! The question is which half?”

Barnum could live with this uncertainty because he was a businessman accustomed to dealing with change as the obverse of opportunity. Change is anathema to politicians and academicians who rely on the status quo, which depends on maintaining the legitimacy of the prevailing political authority.

The academicians are trying to ‘do something’ about the declining legitimacy of political office-holders. Since these efforts are seemingly fruitless, they might well consider the legitimacy problem of politics itself. A legitimate question is:

How can Machiavellian political processes be trusted to govern a progressive human population when history records only failure?

Clearly, money won’t buy legitimacy or convert a confidence game into a social technology – the recent history of political campaigns is ample evidence. However, notwithstanding a wealth of data at hand, Patterson is unable to answer his question “why are they disengaging from elections?” Perhaps his definition of voting and voter turnout is leading him astray.

“Where Have All the Voters Gone?”

Fundamentally, voting is a volitional choice from a menu of alternatives excluding none and including “none of the above” as a legitimate choice. Such choices take place only in the brain of an individual human person. Thus, a valid “vote” can be expressed only by an individual person acting on his own recognizance vis-à-vis the world of alternatives excluding none. Considering all forms of such choosing, Americans are easily seen to be voting more regularly and enthusiastically nowadays than at any time in theirs or anyone else’s history. What is the evidence? The evidence is a consumer economy turning over more than ten trillion 2003 dollars worth of goods and services annually with virtually the whole population participating every day in every way! Notice that the preponderance of such voting takes place continuously without any so-called class, race, age, gender or party distinctions, or qualifications of citizenship, residence, registration or official calendar. And this voting occurs in a purely democratic manner, i.e. as a matter of self-determination without duress, regimentation or prejudice. It is a process in which all participants may and usually do win to some degree. As long as they are free and independent agents of their own cause, they don’t vote unless they expect to win something with high probability. In principle, there are no losers in this arena of human action.

This paradigm of human action produces the state of affairs envisioned by the original organizers of American government as expressed in the Declaration of Independence. This document states in effect that all men have an equal moral standing in the pursuit of their own happiness as they reckon it, and that the purpose of government is to see to it. It was not fully appreciated at the time how politics could corrupt the purpose of government.

The burgeoning, popular kind of voting takes place in an arena wholly separate from politics. It must because the “majority rule” that characterizes political democracy precludes the sovereignty of individual consumers. The winner of political elections “takes all” whereas economics merely accords to each his own. Politics produces monopoly ruled by a minority that presumes a sanction of the majority. By contrast, the economy is open to all comers or else it is not economics. Every participant can win in an economic “election.”

So where is this alternative arena of power? It is the free, uninhibited (laissez faire, live-and-let-live) marketplace, which is everywhere and always open to all who want to play free of coercion. This is the place where consumers — everybody — buy or don’t buy at their sole discretion and in proportion to their productivity in their parallel role as producers. As a result of such buying, the consumers rule the producers, who are subject to competition for the patronage of the consumers. The producers, all of whom are consumers as well, are utterly dependent on the voluntary patronage of consumers. In other words, all rule themselves and each other under the province of competition. And competition prevails everywhere legal privilege does not.

This outcome is known as economic democracy – rule of the consumers, which is everybody. As expressed by economist Ludwig von Mises:

The very principle of capitalist entrepreneurship is to provide for the common man. In his capacity as consumer, the common man is the sovereign whose buying or abstention from buying decides the fate of entrepreneurial activities. There is in the market economy no other means of acquiring and preserving wealth than by supplying the masses in the best and cheapest way with all the goods they ask for.”

The Demise of Politics

Politics subordinates the peaceful public province of the competitive marketplace to overweening government by selected politicians, their bureaucratic minions, client factions and other idle busy-bodies who subsist on extractions from and impositions on producers by force, threat of force or defamation. How does this stark contrast in the human style of life — expressed in terms of voting — escape Prof. Patterson’s notice? Perhaps he is focused so narrowly on the spectacle of political contests for power over people that he is oblivious to all the volitional phenomena going on around him. As a result, he fails to see that the decline of political participation is merely a natural shift in voter preferences from conflict to cooperation, from regimentation to personal enterprise, from the coercive affairs of politics to the productive volitional domain of events in the normal pursuit of happiness.

So where have all the voters gone? They did not go anywhere. They merely remained in the market where they live and work. In doing so, they abstained from wasting their precious time and consents on idle gestures, nonsense, charades, wasteful efforts and destructive campaigns. They abstained in self-defense. They looked after their own property and made their estates grow.

Professor Patterson asks the question “Why Do So Many Americans Hate Politics?” An answer is suggested in this H. L. Mencken quip:

“It is hard to believe that a man is telling the truth when you know that you would lie if you were in his place.”

Self-respecting Americans hate politics because they hate liars. They shun it for the same reason.

Frank Baum advised Dorothy and her toy companions through the voice of the Wizard of Oz:

“Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain.”

Nowadays, skeptics like Mencken and Baum are finding means to pull the curtain and shine the light on the political imposters. The public now has visibility of politicians in action in their natural habitat like never before, perhaps as much as they can stand. And the profession of politics won’t stand scrutiny on rational humanitarian grounds. It is definitely not social. Perhaps it belongs in the category of political animal behavior.

Surely the eminent co-director of the Vanishing Voter Project at Harvard University’s Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy can see that the real cause of politics’ rapid demise comes down to truth in advertising. As bona fide information regarding social events becomes more accessible to people on a timely basis, they become better prepared to act as they will on their own recognizance every day to make the most of their lives while they have them. People need not postpone life-saving and life-advancing decisions until the next political election while the market offers them alternatives to exercise every day. Given the choice, they don’t vote on the false alternatives offered by incompetent, unrealistic and irrelevant institutions in relatively rare political elections. Authentic information not only in print but also streaming over the internet, cables and airwaves enables people to see for themselves that politics is irrelevant to their daily lives and future prospects. No wonder then that politics is becoming increasingly passé. It is being overtaken by a burgeoning population increasingly devoted to living their own lives as best they can free of guilt for so doing.

As time passes, more people are finding they have real choices within their own grasp and control in the purely social domain — the marketplace — where they have practical and prudent opportunities. By contrast, politics never could deliver on its promises regardless of the “issue,” and people are beginning to realize that political participation only encourages more of the same old distractions from production and progress.

Thanks to Prof. Patterson, Harvard University and the Pew Trust, we now have convincing evidence that people are increasingly exerting their natural sovereignty in contempt of proxy political establishments and their meaningless rituals. Political voters are found to be vanishing. The data showing a quantitatively factual picture of political participation confirms abstention from politics is a growing phenomenon. Abstainers now outnumber political voters and the spread is increasing with each succeeding election. The bandwagon for political government seems to have lost its wheels.

Economic participation is its own reward. It is the essence of individual liberty and it needs no advocates to exhort “get out and vote.” Human freedom is the dynamically stable social paradigm after all.  And human life goes on quite nicely on its own recognizance.

Ain’t nature grand?

Alvin Lowi, Jr. P.E.
Rancho Palos Verdes, CA 90275


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