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Apathy at the polls
The great myth of increased political participation as a result of 9/11 is just that — a myth

LAST SEPTEMBER 11 was an election day in Boston. Congressman Joe Moakley, who had represented the Ninth Congressional District for 29 years, had died on Memorial Day, and the primary for the October 16 special election was held on the 11th. After the planes struck, Governor Jane Swift took action. She went on statewide television and urged voters to perform their patriotic duty and participate in the election. The result was something of a surprise: more than 32 percent of voters in the Ninth District cast ballots in the election — a far higher number than the 24 percent that Secretary of State William Galvin had predicted and higher than usual for a rare special election. The implication seemed clear: no longer would the American public view elections as irrelevant. The stakes are high, and in a world where enemies are trying to kill you and destroy your freedom, elections matter.

But now, with 11 days until the Democratic primary in Massachusetts, we are back to square one. Galvin is again forecasting a low turnout, something only slightly higher than the roughly 600,000 who voted in the Democratic gubernatorial primary in 1998. And his projections are borne out nationally, where the news also has been gloomy. The Committee for the Study of the American Electorate reported that the 18 primaries prior to July 5 saw not just low turnout, but record low turnout — with only eight percent of Democrats and seven percent of Republicans going to the polls. Thomas Patterson, director of the Vanishing Voter Project at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, estimated in an August 25 "Focus" piece for the Boston Globe that turnout in the fall midterm elections "might rise," but conceded that any increase would be a "small one."

You certainly can’t blame a thriving economy for the dearth of voter interest. Back in 1999, when stock information blared from television sets in every gym, diner, and barber shop, we were told that voters couldn’t relate to politics, particularly the 2000 presidential race, because the times were so good. Everybody was preoccupied with snapping up hot stocks. The work of local-government officials, such as Governor Paul Cellucci, Senate president Tom Birmingham, and House Speaker Tom Finneran, seemed so irrelevant, so distant, so "old paradigm." But then the dot-com collapse began in April of that year; the economy fell and the Dow Jones Industrial Average cascaded downward with it. The bad times meant a $1 billion "structural" state-budget deficit, a worse fiscal predicament since the last state-budget crisis in the late ’80s and early ’90s, and still the public yawned.

THIS TWOFER — the failure of September 11 to drum up more interest in government and the inability of a failing economy to spur people to the polling booth — translates into something deeply disturbing about the public at large. The great mass of Americans a) doesn’t care about how it is governed; b) sees absolutely no difference between the various candidates; or c) believes that no matter what the various politicians do, the result will be the same. Already a certain facet of journalism has become a private joke among serious political reporters: the "plain folks" story in which a reporter trucks on out to some Norman Rockwell–esque setting and talks to plain folks about politics. The punch line for the cognoscenti is that none of these people knows anything about the different candidates. So in writing our regular stories, journalists do what politicians do — target those who are already involved: activists, single-issue voters, or, most commonly, members of the paid political class, who themselves already have a limited view of who counts in political elections.

Political scientist Curtis Gans, who for the past 26 years has served as director of the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate in Washington, DC, was the rare commentator who predicted — in an October 2001 piece in the Political Standard — a declining turnout even in the immediate aftermath of the September 11 attacks: "As the abysmal turnout in the New York mayoral primary indicated, those who envisage in the upsurge in patriotism ... a fundamental alteration in the attitudes of American citizens to political participation ... are likely to find such visions a mirage."

Reached by telephone, Gans seems to have become, if possible, even more pessimistic since then. His breathless yet melancholy recitation of the forces conspiring to drive voter turnout downward makes him sound more like a spoken-word poet than a political scientist: "We’ve had a major erosion in trust in our leaders beginning with Johnson and Vietnam. Nixon and ‘I am not a crook.’ [Clinton and] ‘I did not have sexual relations with that woman.’ Iran-contra. Impeachment ... the decommunitizing of America through interstate-highway systems, strip malls, suburbanization, abandonment of family farms. Single-parenting. The fragmentation of politics through single-issue and identity politics. Cable and satellite television. Decline in quality of public education. Greater libertarian and consumer interests. The 30-second attack ads."

Still, some would like to pin some of the blame for post-9/11 political apathy on President Bush. There’s no question that there was an upsurge of patriotism after the terrorist attacks. And Bush did little, if anything, to capitalize on it, to facilitate more citizen involvement in government. Democratic strategist Mary Anne Marsh notes that the president failed to challenge the American public, in contrast to the more popular Rudolph Giuliani, the mayor of New York City at the time of the September 11 attacks. "Rudy Giuliani is the perfect example of how to get this done," says Marsh. "When he set a deadline to clean up Ground Zero, they beat that deadline."

Marshall Wittmann, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, a supporter of Arizona senator John McCain, and a newly minted political independent, concurs with Marsh’s assessment. "In the aftermath of September 11th, the president failed to mobilize the sentiment in any significant way except to call for more consumption," says Wittmann, who pointedly contrasts Bush’s post-9/11 call on the American public to travel more and buy more things with the stirring calls to sacrifice issued by Franklin Delano Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy during times of national crisis (World War II and the Cold War, respectively).

But almost everyone agrees that the problem goes far beyond Bush, and that more broadly it concerns a profound level of political disengagement among the younger generations. Both Wittmann and Gans propose a stepped-up system of national service as a way to introduce young people to the purpose and importance of the national government. Wittmann, in addition, argues for short-term enlistment in the program so that young people can more easily join the US military. National Service, to be sure, is part of the answer. President George Washington took a rare policy stand in 1790 when he introduced army legislation that included national military service. Washington understood that previous models of democracy, primarily in ancient Athens and Rome, both featured military service, in part because it helped tie citizens to the government and vice versa. Obviously, in our modern era, military service would have to be broadened to include civilian service in some form similar to the current AmeriCorps program.

EVEN IF SOME element of national service were eventually introduced, nobody expects voter turnout to come around anytime soon. The youngest of those eligible to vote in 1968 — the first election after the Tet Offensive, which made clear that President Johnson and the US military had been lying to the American public about Vietnam — are now 55. We always hear about the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s and the inspirational leadership of John and Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. Well, there’s a flip side to all that. There are plenty of people who came of age in the 1960s who simply dropped out politically — disgusted by the lies, devastated by the deaths — and never came back. They had children and, in some cases, grandchildren, who themselves have little interest in or knowledge of the political process. You may hear some candidates on the campaign trail talk about being a "generational Democrat" or a "Democrat-by-birth," but even this is increasingly difficult to come by.

Consider a scene I witnessed in Brighton last week at the Big City Restaurant during a fundraiser for David Friedman, who is challenging incumbent Democratic state representative Brian Golden. Former Massachusetts governor Michael Dukakis spoke to the more than 50 activist Democrats raising money for Friedman. "You have an administration that can’t deal with Israel and the West Bank, can’t find bin Laden, and wants to invade Iraq. I can’t believe it," said Dukakis at his sharpest and most partisan (if he had campaigned like this in 1988, he might have had a shot). Then he added, "If you want to go to Florida, go to Florida," in a dig at Golden, who went to Florida in the aftermath of the 2000 election to count votes for Bush. The audience of the Democratic faithful ate it up.

Later, I asked Dukakis whether he thought the importance of the issues he laid out would spur greater political interest, either locally or nationally, and translate into greater turnout. Standing outside the restaurant on Brighton Avenue, Dukakis said he didn’t think so. In fact, the former governor attributes his greatest political achievement — getting 300,000 more people to vote in the 1982 Democratic primary against Ed King (1.2 million came out in the primary, double the number who voted in 1998) — to the strength of his political organization. "It wasn’t an accident," says Dukakis. "We had 70,000 walking the streets and knocking on doors. Three-out-of-five said they had been contacted personally by somebody voting for Dukakis. Turnout has a great deal to do with the kind of work being done in neighborhoods, in precincts, and in the street, and if you do that kind of work, you produce turnout."

Of course, no politician can unleash that kind of organization anymore, and that’s so for the same reason we have a turnout problem to begin with. Take unions as an example. While they’re still strong in Massachusetts, they don’t carry the political strength they once did. Ever since Ronald Reagan won Massachusetts in 1980 on the backs of the Reagan Democrats, many of them union members, it has been understood that the union flock often vote differently from their leadership, if they vote at all — no matter what the union chiefs say at the Labor Breakfast at the Park Plaza. And none of the newer activist groups carries the same juice it did formerly, either. September 11 or no September 11, it’s one big jaundiced America out there. I shudder to think how bad things have to get before the people wake up.

Seth Gitell can be reached at sgitell[a]

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Issue Date: September 5 - 12, 2002
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