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United States: Analysis From Washington -- Voters Versus Citizens

  • Paul Goble

Washington, 4 November 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Projections that a relatively low percentage of Americans would actually vote in Tuesday's midterm elections have called attention to the ever-increasing difference in attitudes and opinions between those who vote and those who do not.

Several recent polls suggest that the differences between these two groups are large and growing. And several analysts have suggested that unless the political system addresses these differences soon, the divide between voters and non-voters may weaken the social cohesion of the United States and potentially undermine the legitimacy of democracy in that country.

In the past, many political analysts have suggested that declines in the percentage of eligible voters who actually cast ballots may be an indication of growing social and political stability.

According to this argument, non-voters are satisfied enough with their circumstances that they do not feel the need to vote. And even if they are alienated by the specific choices they would face at the ballot box, the spectrum of their views is not fundamentally different from that of those who actually take part.

Professional politicians have never really accepted this idea. In every election, they work hard to get "their" voters to the polls, an implicit acknowledgment that there may be some very real differences between those likely to vote in any case and those who do not normally take part.

But the results of several public opinions released in the United States in the run-up to yesterday's elections suggest the differences in views between voters and non-voters may be even greater than politicians believe. And these differences may ultimately have a more serious impact on future political developments in the United States and in other countries where they exist than even the divisions that are highlighted and measured by elections themselves.

As analyzed by Nicholas Lemann of the American magazine Atlantic Monthly, these polls show that there is a large and growing split between those who vote in the United States and thus determine government policy, and other citizens who do not vote and thus find themselves at the mercy of those who do.

Those who participate in elections, Lemann notes, increasingly reflect the values and interests of the suburban middle class. In his words, these voters -- and they are found in both of the two major American political parties -- now "embraced a kind of one-way libertarianism."

That set of beliefs holds that the government "has a very serious obligation" to protect the needs of the middle class, but that the middle class "is in no way obligated to commit time or money to larger national projects" in domestic or foreign affairs that do not touch its immediate interests.

Such attitudes, Lemann suggests, make it extremely difficult for the government to address anything cast in terms of a "broad national interest," be it the alleviation of poverty or the defense of human rights abroad.

But potentially more fateful in the longer term, is the fact that non-voters, who are disproportionately poor and urban, have a very different set of interests and opinions. A majority of these non-voters, the polls suggest, believe that government should address the problems of all its citizens and not just those who have the wealth and leisure that allows them easy access to the political system.

In the short-term, their feelings that the political system is ignoring them are making even more of them alienated and angry. That in turn may make them less likely to vote and thus to ensure that the current trend will simply continue. If this happens, some current social problems that they experience may get even worse.

Over the longer term, past experience suggests, the anger of non-voting citizens may drive them into the political system, either because they decide that they have no other choice but to participate in order to advance their interests or because one or another leader will emerge who will use their voting power to challenge the existing consensus.

Long-established democracies like the United States can absorb such new entrants with minimal difficulty. But countries without such experience in democratic governance are likely to face far more difficulties when non-voting citizens decide that the voters have ignored them.