Free nations don’t vote. Why? And is it important they do?

Why do the the most politically free countries have an electorate uninterested in the idea of democratic elections?

It’s a dynamic I’ve been wrestling with for almost a year now. I have my own theories, and a pretty good idea of how to conduct some empirical investigation, but it demands attention. After all, political science is devoted in large part to the nature and process of democracy. In a US college, the three fundamental courses are American politics (tracing the evolution of one country’s democracy), comparative politics (gauging relative democratic strength over distance), and international relations (analyzing the issues of pan-national government). The inherent slant is that democracy is the best way to run a country. A key consideration is what makes a good form of government. How do you compare?

In this list (PDF) ranking political freedom by Freedom House (score from 1-7, low scores are better), you can see a country like Switzerland that gets the best possible rating. But like most other countries with a sterling reputation, there is a very familiar graph:

Source: SFSO, political statistics.

It’s far from unique. Canada has a trend- a drop of about twenty points since the sixties. US presidential elections are a much longer-term story- the years of Canada-like turnout were a century ago. At its nadir in 1996, less than half of the voting age population cast a ballot. This was also strange given another trend shown in the link- voter registration is making better inroads, so more people were able to vote but did not choose to.

Election turnout in Canada since 1962

Why? One blogger suggests it’s linked to the creep of corruption in developed nations, and an erosion of popular faith in the process. But the actual damage to the election process itself is often minimal- in the 21st century the EU, Japan, and others are not throwing elections. The consensus is that the election results, if not representative of the public’s political views, are at least show the correct results given those that did vote.

With that it would seem that it’s not the simple fear that one’s ballot will just end up in a shredder somewhere. The issues start long before someone thinks about whether to vote this election cycle. Stephen Colbert once wrote in America: The Book that an individual voter’s influence could be compared to the size of a deer tick to the Asian landmass. Humans prefer to see their actions having tangible consequences. It’s understandable.

Also many of these nations that score well in political freedom also score high in transparency. On the objective measures, Switzerland scores very highly, but even there public opinion shows a majority think their anti-corruption efforts are ineffective.

A theory I forward is the idea of democratic fatigue. That is, that participation will decline over time as a stable democracy matures. Perhaps the US has such a long-term decline because its elections have been free (for at least some of the populations) for well over a century now. Abundant data exists for the new clutch of democracies carved out of the USSR- hopefully over time they will show us how participation changes in places where democracy emerged only in the last decade of the 20th century.

Why democratic fatigue? I posit that a very well-run nation will eventually lose the attention of the public. A comparison: when an employee you are supervising is new and learning, you watch them very closely and intently. As time goes on and their body of work shows quality, you stop paying so much attention. At some point, you eventually hand them the keys and tell them to lock up. They can do this job on their own.

If Switzerland has high economic growth, a good environmental record, and high levels of happiness, why would elections have huge, universal importance? Besides making sure a party of nutters doesn’t seize control, good results mean less and less scrutiny. Certainly high corruption would alienate people, but very low corruption doesn’t catalyze a nation to be active in politics.

In a long-running democracy the point of comparison changes. To an American, the point of comparison isn’t the tyranny of King George III, it’s another era of democratic elections and similar turnout. A middle-aged person from Estonia, or Poland would remember when there were no free elections, a foreign power had final say on any decisions, and complaining about corruption wasn’t a luxury people had. As more of the population loses that point of comparison, the sense of complacency grows. Perhaps entropy means all countries end up tailing off- more or less depending on where participation peaked, but a constant state.

And of course, the question must be- is participation essential for democracy? It seems obvious given the name, but high participation doesn’t seem to correlate that high with good government, at least in developed democracies. Italians vote in very high numbers given the context, but they are also the poster child for corruption in the EU. And if turnout is important to democracy, how does it increase, given that the current political systems do not seem to mandate or encourage it.

men do not make positions; positions make men

I’m currently reading Sam Dolgoff’s sizable Bakunin on Anarchism, a collection of Michael Bakunin’s writings from his entire career. It’s organized chronologically, and designed to show how Bakunin came upon the idea of anarchism and what he called “the Social Revolution.” If you just want his most famous essays, I’d advise a smaller collection. But in terms of a complete portrait, I’m finding it very satisfying.

The title is from an article he wrote in the spring of 1869. In it he ponders the political questions that still exists today- can you change the system from within? During the political movements of the 19th century, certain parts of the bourgeoisie tried to convince the working class that voting and parliaments were the best path to political and economic equality. Accepting or rejecting the political process is a choice all groups must make. In America there are elements that criticize a path of assimilation-  a documentary called Lifting the Veil, released a couple years ago, discusses the Democratic Party as “the graveyard of social movements.”

Bakunin was emphatically against using the existing political apparatus, created by the bourgeoise for their benefit. The whole culture and background of these institutions sustains the culture of inequality and exploitation. Even if a working class activists were elected to office, they would quickly cease to be part of the working class. One cannot go through the process of nomination, campaigning, election, and service unchanged. The specific nature of the office and its power moulds the individual more than the peculiarities of the individual mould the office. In short, positions make men.

There is a belief among liberal Democrats and some independents that getting good, progressive, people into office can change Congress and the Presidency. Elizabeth Warren was the head of this most recent vanguard of this hope, four years before that it was Barack Obama. Yet Obama seems to be more like his predecessor as time goes on- is he shaping the Presidency as much as it is shaping him?

If economic and political equality is desired, it should be said that the existing process are poisoned tools. Election law, legislative regulation, methods for amendment and change- they were created by groups that saw the existing power dynamics as good and wished to keep them that way. Bakunin said it was time to create change directly through the power of those that are oppressed- revolution.

Direct action, nonviolent struggle, economic boycotts work outside the system because no good general fights on ground specially chosen by the opponent. The ultimate goal of them is a system shaped by real people, not people shaped by an old system.

People do not need positions. They are their own power.