Voting 'yes' for democracy

Posted: Oct 29, 2002 12:00 AM
This year's midterm elections could tilt the balance of power in Congress and significantly impact issues no less pervasive than the economy, Social Security reform, Medicare and the war on Iraq. Yet, most pollsters predict that these life-and-death issues will not translate into increased voter turnout. This voter apathy seems surprising considering that this election period has an abundance of issues at which politicians traditionally love to pump their fists. We have, for example, in Saddam Hussein and al-Qaida, the sort of free-floating economic angst that Reagan once tapped into and the sort of tin pot dictators at which Nixon made a career wagging his finger. There are also corporate corruption stories and even the possibility of the Republicans bucking a 30-year-old tradition to pick up midterm votes and take control of the House and Senate. Indeed, there is no shortage of pendulum issues - any of which could tilt our society on its axis. And yet, the public remains apathetic. Why the disinterest? Perhaps part of the problem can be linked to both parties' general movement toward the center. In this regard, both are following Clinton's model. Unconvincing as a leader, but astounding as a demagogue, Clinton corralled support by co-opting his adversary's policies and appealing to the middle. President Bush made a point of doing the same earlier by publicly courting bipartisan support on education reform (dubbed "the Kennedy liberal education bill" by many conservatives), the farm bill and the war on Iraq. Bush also co-opted some issues that can only be considered traditionally Democratic, like affirmative action and increased foreign aid for Africa. The president won kudos for overcoming some of the post-Clinton hangover, but his bipartisan overtures and support of middle-of-the-road candidates like Liddy Dole and John Sununu are something of a straightjacket to the party, preventing local candidates from running an anti-Democrat campaign (as they did against Clinton in 1994). By the same token, the Democratic leadership has buddied up to the Republicans on most financial and tax related issues. All this forced "buddying" has effectively neutered the Democratic National Committee on bread and butter issues like welfare and education. As for the issues that continue to divide - like military spending and abortion rights - the standard rhetoric continues. TV spits out the same tireless loop of arguments that we've been bombarded with for the last decade. These issues are important, but they are no longer framed in a manner that shocks voters into paying attention. Finally, voter apathy can also be linked to the fact that we believe our empire to be secure and joyfully authoritative. We have been spoiled by peaceful economic and military expansion. The empire is large and vast and we take for granted that America will come out on top, regardless of which party dominates. Of course, there'll always be those contrarians that insist on voting, no matter how good things get. They can be counted on to keep America from achieving complete apathy. The obstinate few keep our democracy from falling by the wayside. Men like Sen. Paul Wellstone, who recently lost his life while stumping for his party. Or men like Gov. Mel Carnahan, who lost his life in a similar fashion last year. People like that, along with the stubborn 50 percent who still insist on voting, keep our democracy from succumbing to the slow erosion of indifference.