The party line in American politics these days does not come down between Democrats, Republicans and Greens, but between voters and non-voters.
Eligible voter participation in presidential elections fell below half for the first time, to 49 percent in the 1996 race, according to the non-partisan Committee for the Study of the American Electorate (CSAE). And these same statistics reveal the emerging participation of a voting class: distinguishable ethnically, regionally and socioeconomically from the non-voters to a degree that makes difference between voting Democrats and Republicans nearly indistinguishable.
Things show little sign of changing this fall. Eligible voter turnout has been in steady decline since a peak of 63 percent in 1960, with the largest losses coming from minority and low-income groups and young people. At the time, this statistic produced a flurry of articles from activists, economists and naysayers, jockeying to correctly diagnose the apathy of the American public.
Who cares if the numbers of the Voting Party shrink? There is little reason to think it would significantly affect the actual result of either party's campaign. When the candidacy of a major party is decided by 5 to 8 percent of the population--as it was in this year's primaries--it's that much easier for career politicians to assemble the critical mass necessary for victory (for example, the secret message in the source code at www.gore200.com).
The tremendous danger of this position is that the importance of voting becomes equated entirely with its effect on the election's results. My rebuttal rests on two points:
(1) Voting in a presidential election is a critically important act of civic participation for all eligible voters, but hardly because of its effect on the race results. After all, the outcome of an election with 100 percent turnout is statistically the same as an election decided by randomly choosing one vote from the population.
(2) Ritual participation of the people in government is the single distinguishing factor of democracy. The social, fiscal and environmental policies of the U.S. could be radically improved on a standard scale by benign dictatorship; if we continue to tolerate the system as is, it must be out of faith in process as much as in achievement.
To this end, some remarks on two major myths circulating among the eligible-but-not-voting people I know:
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