“The U.S. population might become apathetic and gullible to the point of civic dysfunction.”
At first glance, polls like this recent one of self-proclaimed Republicans makes one wonder. (Is there an equivalent poll for Democrats?) The rhetoric at the Tea Parties has been a little, well, out to lunch, not to mention the deliberate use of, uh, falsehoods by major Republican personages, like Senator Grassley. Fox News, meanwhile, is a national disgrace, and every recently Keith Olbermann has drifted in a similar direction, to the point where my wife hates his show. (Jon Stewart recently reigned him in.)
But then you just need to sit and think about it for a moment. With just a little bit of historical perspective, the fear drops away. Consider the history of health-care-related rhetoric in the United States. (Click the link.) Pretty crazy stuff, no? Then consider the stuff the New Left used to say, at much higher volume than the marginal and muted lefties of the Bush Administration era. Yet the Republic survived. Meanwhile many people worry about the decline of civic participation, the 2008 election uptick notwithstanding. It is something to be worried about ... but when you think about what real high-participation elections were like back in 19th-century America, it isn’t something to inspire nostalgia. Consider:
On the morning of November 2, 1859 — Election Day — George Kyle, a merchant with the Baltimore firm of Dinsmore & Kyle, left his house with a bundle of ballots tucked under his arm. Kyle was a Democrat. As he neared the polls in the city’s 15th Ward, which was heavily dominated by the American Party, a ruffian tried to snatch his ballots. Kyle dodged and wheeled, and heard a cry; his brother, just behind him, had been struck. Next, someone clobbered Kyle, who drew a knife, but didn’t have a chance to use it. “I felt a pistol put to my head,” he said. Grazed by a bullet, he fell. When he rose, he drew his own pistol, hidden in his pocket. He spied his brother lying in the street. Someone else fired a shot, hitting Kyle in the arm. A man carrying a musket rushed at him. Another threw a brick, knocking him off his feet. George Kyle picked himself up and ran. He never did cast his vote. Nor did his brother, who died of his wounds. The Democratic candidate for Congress ... lost to the American Party’s Henry Davis. Three months later, when the House of Representatives convened hearings into the election ... Davis’s victory was upheld on the ground that any “man of ordinary courage” could have made his way to the polls.
Apathy has its charms.
That said, I see two problems, one potential and unlikely, one with us right now. The potential and (IMHO) unlikely one is that the internet and cable news will somehow interact with America’s ideological cleavages to produce a dysfunctional electorate. I really have my doubts that there is anything to worry about here, but I can of course be convinced otherwise by a good argument.
The other problem is that too many voters do not realize that America’s constitution has shifted over the past few decades. We now live in a world of parliamentary parties. Yet too many Americans persist in believing that the candidate matters in elections for the federal legislature. Even Doug Muir believed this. (I doubt that he still does, but Doug doesn’t admit error much. Partially because he’s rarely wrong.) More discussion here.
I had a very worrying discussion along these lines with family members at my niece’s recent wedding. (No, not a long discussion. There was dancing! With my wife! And little kids, lot of! For her to play with! Which she liked! A lot! Erm, gulp.) Americans want to believe that the person matters more than the party, which is simply not true. If it were, the GOP would not have been able to muster the quite odd unanimous party-line votes that it recently did in favor of defaulting on U.S. debts and removing all limits on Congressional spending. The WTF-moment those votes inspire clarifies itself and makes perfect sense when you realize that we live in a parliamentary republic these days.
There seems to me a large risk that the disjunct between voter perceptions of the political system we live under and the reality of that system could lead our government to go off the rails. Especially with the recent emergence of the Senate supermajority norm. Will voter perceptions catch up? I mean, if even Doug Muir was reluctant to abandon the idea that the Senators from Maine were different, we might be in trouble.
(BTW, for the record, on the thread linked to above? Faeelin right, me wrong.)