John Locke talked a lot about ‘the majority’. One of the key principles highlighted in his social contract was the consent of the majority, that in forming a political community, the will of the majority basically matters most. Certainly I would hate to trample on the distinct nuances that a foreigner who only recently followed American politics would surely overlook, but I believe that the concepts highlighted by John Locke, which are also key concepts in forming the American political system, are to some extent dampened by low turnouts in the recent midterms.
Locke said that “When any number of men have so consented to make one community or government, they are thereby presently incorporated, and make one body politic, wherein the majority have a right to act and conclude the rest.” But right now, I don’t think it really is ‘the majority’ that has ‘the right to conclude the rest’, but simply the majority of whoever actually went to vote. Sure, this situation is legitimized by Locke’s idea of tacit consent. “Though they didn’t actively vote, their acceptance of the results is shown by the fact that no one is revolting or even refuting the results of the elections” is probably what Good Ol’ Johnny would say to me. But I think differently, I think that it’s malaise that’s enforcing the low turn-outs of elections in America, especially midterms. People who are tacitly consenting to the results aren’t saying “y’know what I don’t mind the Republicans taking over Congress”, they’re saying something closer to “y’know what I’m tired of all this”, they are refusing ‘positive engagement’, another Lockeian concept which Locke basically says is what differentiates foreigners from ‘subjects of that commonwealth’ i.e citizens.
Firstly, and this is quite obvious, voter turnouts in American political elections are appalling, especially midterm elections. The most recent elections were extremely low. The Washington Post describes it as “one of the lowest-turnout elections in American history”.
There are plenty of reasons people don’t vote. Some feel lazy, some have logistical issues, and others are just downright against state apparatus (though the latter is an obviously tiny minority). Zen College Life listed 7 reasons here.
In fact, The New York Times interviewed some people who weren’t voting recently:
But you know who’s not, and never will be apathetic and will always vote regardless of barriers they might face? Party hardliners who are way way off center and those who actively demonize anyone who steps near centrist politics and bipartisan compromise. They’ll vote in all elections, even if there’s one every fortnight.
Recently we saw a primary election unseat the second most powerful Republican in the House at the time, Eric Cantor. He was ousted by a Tea party-backed challenger because Republicans in Mr Cantor’s constituency believed him to be too much of a centrist. In his book The Future of Freedom, Fareed Zakaria talked a lot about the direction in which American politics is heading. He designated a big chunk of one chapter for American primaries. He contended that the only people that actually vote in these elections tend to be those who are way off center and how primaries pave the way for radicals to get their way. The main crux of his point was rooted in the credibility of the assumption that malaise leads to a systemic failure of representative democracy.
The attitude Mr. Zakaria was talking about can also be applied to the recent elections. The people who have most grievances and are hence more likely to vote are either party hard-liners or people who don’t have their preferred presidential candidate in the White House, which are obviously not the majority of people.
Two-thirds of citizens not voting in any election is ridiculous. In fact, one of the reasons the recent vote for independence in the region of Catalonia was called illegal by the federal Madrid government was because turnout was very low, at 40%. These turnouts were higher than the recent midterms but of course I can’t deny the Madrid government had obvious reasons to desperately find any reason to delegitimize the Catalonian independence referendum.
What happens when a huge chunk of Americans don’t vote? As stated before, I believe what happens is that the notion of representative government becomes blurry, undermining Lockeian principles.
Think about it, Congress has had extremely low approval ratings. The number depends on who you ask, but it’s typically around 15%. Lower than cockroaches. Heck, even lower than Nickelback! We’d probably expect, from this, a high number of incumbents losing right? Wrong. We saw a reelection rate of 96% in the recent midterms.
Most people point to the prevalent mentality of “I hate Congress, but I love my Congressman” that a lot of people have. I’m positive this attitude must be a big contributor to high reelection rates: After all it’s easier to hate an institution rather than the individuals in it, especially if some of those individuals are your neighbors. But I’d contend that that attitude can’t be the only contributor. A poll by Gallup before the midterms found that “a record-low portion of voters, 46 percent, said their own representative deserved re-election.” Surely if that was the case – if around half of the population thought their individual congressmen needed to be booted out – the number of incumbents that would’ve lost re-election must have had to be higher than a meagre 5%.
As an outside impartial viewer of recent American politics, this just seems to not tally up and I can’t help but point a finger at malaise in politics channeled in the unbelievably low voter turnouts. As an extension to this, I’ve argued that what happens when political malaise is prevalent is that the concepts advocated by Locke – like positive engagement and representative democracy – are dampened. Are all Lockeian concepts obliterated because of this? Of course not, that’s absurd. But I’m positive if political malaise was less prevalent, the midterms would’ve looked different.