How do you solve a problem like the voters? This question, one laced with a thinly veiled veneer of contempt for the ignorance of the enfranchised multitudes, once thoroughly vexed progressives. This was the premise at the heart of the ur-text on the subject: Thomas Frank’s What’s the Matter with Kansas. The question-begging assumption therein is the Marxian supposition that zombie-like hordes of sedated voters head to the polls every election cycle to cast a ballot against their own interests. At the heart of the great liberal lament is not a question of whether voters are wise enough to manage their affairs. Rather, it is whether progressives should even be forced to sell their self-evidently righteous agenda to an obdurate, unthinking public. Rejected by their erstwhile allies on the right, some principled conservatives who were once hostile toward this manner of condescension find themselves drawn to the same sad barstool where progressives parked themselves in the last decade. “What is to be done about the voters?” they ask. Though a tempting one, this is the wrong question.
Author and conservative columnist David Harsanyi explored some conservative frustrations with the voters in a column published in the Washington Post. The piece, which he surely knew would induce spasms of scenery-chewing denunciations in our brave new populist era, argues that voters should have to demonstrate that they retain a minimal understanding of the pillars of American self-governance before they are allowed into the voting booth. Some of the modestly challenging questions prospective voters might be made to answer range from knowing a few of the original 13 American states to stating one of the freedoms enshrined in the First Amendment.
Prebutting the predictable accusation that he was arguing for a kind of intellectual poll tax on the electorate, Harsanyi argued that requiring a demonstration of this rudimentary knowledge of the workings of American government is a threshold that nearly everyone should be expected to cross. No argument there. A society that fetishizes ignorance isn’t an entirely healthy one. There is, however, a difference between encouraging intellectual engagement and mandating it. Stigmatizing civic and historical illiteracy is the duty of all thinking individuals, particularly those who intend to exercise the franchise. But nothing is more attractive than that which is prohibited. Just as hiking the drinking age created a reckless subculture of illicit over-imbibing teenagers, even the perception that the authorities frown upon the enfranchisement of the ill-equipped will move a few to act out of spite. Harsanyi’s recommendations will never become real, but a backlash against them might.
Harsanyi’s proposal is, in a way, a mirror image of the left-progressive impulse to augment the pool of eligible voters as a means of seeing preferred policy enacted. A growing number on the left regard modest barriers to participation in elections such as registering with the state, knowing where your local polling place is, and holding elections on weekdays as vestigial and disenfranchising. The liberal vision is one of compulsory voter registration and mandatory participation. “You start getting 70-80 percent voting rates, that’s transformative,” President Barack Obama beamed while praising Australia’s mandatory voting laws. The liberal theory is that a new influx of previously disinterested voters will support liberal politicians and policies, and that is an assumption supported by the polling. The unspoken liberal conceit in this assertion is that the current electorate, a more consistent and civically minded electorate, is stubbornly antagonistic toward their preferred agenda. Rather than convincing these existing voters of the value of liberal policy prescriptions, why not simply dilute their influence?
If the far left wants the electorate to more closely resemble a mob, the far right often flirts with exclusionary policies intended to impose strict limits on the number of eligible voters. Many conservatives believe that the Founders’ wise hostility toward democracy has been ill-advisedly weakened over the centuries. A franchise that was once limited to white male property owners is now extended to almost everyone. Presidents and senators who were originally selected by elected representatives are now elected representatives themselves.
As James Kirchick observed in a dispatch for COMMENTARY on the racially aggrieved, reactionary pro-Trump online activists, evangelists of the Dark Enlightenment (which is exactly what it sounds like) are overtly hostile toward the expansion of voting rights. Middle aged computer programmer and proudly authoritarian activist Curtis Yarvin, a prophet of the so-called “alternative right,” rejects popular democracy, although Kirchick noted that he has reluctantly embraced extending voting rights only to homeowners. Though Yarvin’s racial paranoia would turn off many conservatives, his antipathy toward the voting masses likely would not.
What these two poles of the American political spectrum share is a grudging acceptance of the fact that their side has lost the argument. Rather than adapt their contentions, they’ve determined that they need a friendlier audience. The notion that voters don’t know what’s good for them has long been a point of progressive pride. It would be a pity to see that adopted by conservatives in one of their movement’s darkest moments.
“It isn’t that voters are not profoundly ignorant, it’s just that making them less ignorant isn’t really going to help much on Election Day,” wrote National Review’s Kevin Williamson, “because political preferences are not, in the main, a function of knowledge.” As Williamson has frequently observed, making a talisman of the act of voting is no substitute for genuine civic engagement. For the majority of Americans, that truly satisfying form of civic participation is usually a small-scale and local act. Therefore, the devolution of authority away from the reclaimed swampland on the Potomac and back to states and local municipalities may go a long way toward making electoral politics boring again. It is boring, predictable, circumspect government that inspires the most trust among the governed.
Voting isn’t “sexy,” and the impulse among activists to augment youth participation in elections by equating the practice of voting to coitus cheapens and demeans both acts. Not voting is a privilege, too. Dropping out of a society is a freedom not widely protected in totalitarian states. Self-selection and free association are the hallmarks of a classically liberal society. The freedom not to vote most certainly should not be abridged by the left’s self-assured social engineers, but nor should prudent nonparticipation in electoral politics be disparaged. Rather than determining to resolve the problem of voter participation rates, perhaps left and right alike would be better served to refine their arguments in order to win over the existing electorate.