Thursday, September 30, 2010

Media Rants: For Compulsory Voting

The following piece appears in the October 2010 edition of The SCENE.

For Compulsory Voting

Media Rants

By Tony Palmeri

The day after the September primary, Gannett’s Appleton Post-Crescent reported that “A projected record turnout of voters in Tuesday's election never materialized as only about 1 in 5 eligible voters cast ballots.” The 19 percent turnout fell short of the Government Accountability Board’s 28 percent prediction, which would’ve been the highest since 1964.

Nationally, the professional punditocracy insists that Tea Party activism and anger at Obama energizes Republican voters. Yet “record” turnouts in partisan primaries remained abysmally low; in some states a whopping 10 percent participation. If turnout nationally in the November midterm elections reaches 50 percent, professional election watchers will consider that “high.”

Even though voting in presidential elections has been on the increase, the 61 Percent turnout that brought Barack Obama to the White House in 2008 still fell short of the 64 percent in 1908 that propelled portly William Howard Taft over Bible thumping William Jennings Bryan. Is it not astonishing that in 100 years we have never had more than 64 percent of eligible voters cast a ballot for the highest office in the land?

Let’s face it: voter turnout in the United States, the country calling itself the greatest representative democracy in the world, is an international embarrassment. Elected federal officials wield immense power, yet low vote totals rarely provide them with a clear mandate to govern in any particular policy direction. In some ways the situation is worse at the local level: officials who set your property tax rates, (de)fund your child’s school, and approve crazy corporate welfare schemes usually get elected on the strength of less than 20 percent voter turnout.

But the lack of a mandate to govern is only one negative effect of low turnout. Over the last 20 or 30 years we’ve seen the makings of something much more nefarious. The sophistication and refinement of market research techniques now allow political operatives on the Democratic and Republican sides to discover quite easily what the “likely voter” wants to hear, and then tailor messages to that group. In a system dominated by petty partisan political hacks, what candidates stand for is always secondary to the need to “get our voters to the polls.” The result, always, are campaigns long on schmoozing and short on issue specifics, with obnoxious telephone, Email, and snail mail reminders to “get out and vote” for candidates so tightly scripted they might as well be running for a seat on the screen actors’ guild board of directors.

The system of political hackery is aided and abetted by the fact that in the USA voting is conceived of not as a duty of citizenship, but as a civil right that adults can choose not to use. Unfortunately, the system of voluntary voting isn’t working; we need a dramatic rethinking of citizenship expectations.

Think about it: if a person responded to a jury duty summons by saying, “I don’t feel like serving, “ or “I don’t care about the justice system,” or “I’m not well informed,” or “I don’t like the prosecution or defense,” we would laugh. We compel people not only to serve on juries, but to educate their children, pay taxes, and even keep their lawns trimmed. Oddly, we don’t compel people to have to go out and vote in elections the results of which will determine what kind of justice, education, taxation, and public works programs we have.

More than 30 countries require citizens to vote. In places like Brazil and Australia, voter turnout is well over 90 percent and thus the results more accurately reflect the “will of the electorate.” In Brazil, President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva comes from a personal background of extreme poverty and stands for a set of leftist ideals that make USA liberal Democrats look like Rush Limbaugh. Right wing, corporatist leaders can and do get elected in places with compulsory voting (Silvio Berlusconi in Italy is one example), but at least no one can argue it’s because voters stayed home. In the USA, they merely need to spend lots of cash hiring field organizers, make large media buys to propagate mindless advertisements, and pay for other “get out the vote” activities.

The major arguments against compulsory voting are that it infringes on liberty, “ignorant” people will be forced to vote, and that there’s no one worth voting for. Let’s address each in turn.
First, non-voting has infringed on our liberties much more than a compulsory voting system ever could. The greatest assaults on our liberties, from the Espionage Act of World War I to McCarthy era mania to the post 9/11 homeland security excesses, were all put in place by elected officials who had no clear electoral mandate.

As for “ignorant” voters, they exist prominently in our current system. A compulsory system of voting results in more issue based elections; perhaps we’d see a drop in ignorance.

For voters who feel there is no one worth voting for, commentators from Ralph Nader on the left to the editorial page of the Wall St. Journal have argued that there ought be a “none of the above” option on the ballot. I agree.

It will probably be years before we see a serious discussion of compulsory voting. Until then, please VOTE!

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

The Joys of Teaching

One of the great joys of teaching is the experience of reading critical commentary written by former students. We (teachers) usually don't know if the student was already an astute critical thinker before enrolling in our classes, but we like to tell ourselves that the classes had something to do with the former student's current critical faculties.

What's even better is when a former student demonstrates that he or she has the "lights on" even when there's no homework assignment. That is, the critical mindset has become a distinct part of their persona.

I thought about all this an hour ago when an email came in from a former student who is now in her first semester of graduate school at Marquette. Here's part of her brief email:

Last week, I had the opportunity to attend a conference here in Milwaukee featuring several famous speakers: Steve Forbes, Laura Bush, Colin Powell, and Rudy Giuliani. Fascinating to say the least, and a case study on how resting solely on one's perceived ethos is devastating to a decent speech. If I may, I'll just give you my tongue-and-cheek summaries: Laura read from a manuscript, trying hard to convince us that she & George are normal people who wear fuzzy slippers, drink coffee, and write their memoirs, all while reassuring themselves they made 100% justifiable decisions while in office. Steve Forbes tried hard to convince the audience that socialism is inherently evil, while generic, wealthy Republican interests are universal interests in America. Powell & Giuliani's speeches groaned with anecdotes and were boringly uncontroversial. I know you have more experience talking and listening to politicians than I do. Perhaps I was expecting too much?

No, I don't think she was expecting too much. In fact, I'd say her "tongue in cheek" observations are more on-point than 99 percent of what we get from the professional punditocracy. She's clearly a very good "crap detector." Good for her, good for society at-large, and a good feeling to know that I might have had some minor role in motivating her to think critically about public discourse.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Neumann Deserves To Win Republican Primary

I don't think he will, but Mark Neumann does deserve to win today's Republican primary for governor of Wisconsin. Several reasons:

*Neumann is the only candidate to release plans--fairly detailed--specifying what he would do if elected governor. The Scott Walker campaign, which is based largely on bumper sticker slogans and silly soundbites, responded not with detailed plans of their own but by calling Neumann an "egomaniac." I disagree with probably 80 percent of Neumann's 210 page position manual, but applaud the candidate for taking some stands. We need more of those kinds of "egomaniacs" in contemporary politics.

*Neumann's campaign, unintentionally I think, has exposed how out of touch the Republican Party hierarchy is with the average voter on the street. The effort on the part of the party insiders to ensure that they get a nominee (i.e. Scott Walker) who represents no threat to Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce or other pet establishment insider groups has been nothing short of sickening. (Which is not to say that Neumann IS a threat to those groups; of course he is not. But at least in the campaign he has shown some ability to be independent.).

*Scott Walker's advertising might be the worst in the history of Wisconsin politics. Virtually everything is a gimmick (e.g. the "brown bag movement" nonsense), low level pandering (e.g. he'll appoint someone to guarantee more deer for hunters), or the most vile kind of "gotcha'" politics (e.g. Neumann's vote for a 1998 transportation bill while in Congress).

*Walker's performance as Milwaukee County Executive is a case study in the perils of governing with your eye aimed at someday running for higher office. Any person looking honestly at Walker's record as County Executive has to conclude that, in order to be able to posture as a fiscal tough guy, he has forced the County Board of Supervisors to do virtually all of the heavy lifting. Early in the campaign Neumann went after Walker on this point, but then backed down for reasons that are not very clear (I suspect he might want to run for another office someday and does not want to completely alienate the hacks in the party establishment.).

Recently the Walker campaign has trotted out the theory that Democrats will cross party lines to vote for Neumann because they think he (Neumann) will be a weaker candidate against Tom Barrett. If there is such a Democratic conspiracy in place, it's an extraordinarily stupid one. Scott Walker is the weakest Republican candidate since Scott McCallum (McCallum, you might recall, spent most of his campaign trashing state workers and the shared revenue program.).

Neumann v. Barrett would represent the best chance for an issue based fall campaign instead of the bumper sticker nightmare we'll get with Walker in the ring. I hope I'm wrong, but I think we're headed for the latter.