The old girl certainly spoke for the majority. In all the parts of the country that hosted elections on Thursday, only 32 percent of people bothered to vote. The dismal turnout was eclipsed by Labour’s landslide victory, but, as Brendan O’Neill argued in the Telegraph, it was surely the more significant story. That the British are so uninterested in politics in the middle of such a terrible recession speaks volumes about the decline of democracy.
A few years ago, I might have been outraged. Like a lot of young people on the Left, I defined civic engagement by voting. In fact, turning out once every two years to cast a ballot for a complete stranger - who will go on to do (at best) nothing or (at worst) a lot of damage – hardly screams Citizen of the Year Award. There are countless other, better ways to improve the lives of your fellow man, of which the surest is to care for your family. You really want to create good citizens, rebuild the jobs base, and advance educational opportunity, all at no cost to other people? Try homeschooling.
But what of the argument that by not voting you lose a right to complain? It’s a magician’s misdirection. Across the West the relationship between the citizen and the state isn’t defined by voting but by paying taxes. That’s what gives you the right to complain. The citizen is rather like a consumer purchasing a car. He’s at liberty to involve himself in the process of making that car – become an engineer, buy shares in the company, vote at shareholder meetings, demonstrate outside the factory against pollutants etc. But even if he didn’t do all those things, he still has the right to complain when he lifts the bonnet of his brand new car to discover that it has no engine underneath. Why? Because he paid good money for it. As with cars, so with schools, hospitals, and even nuclear weapons.
Likewise, nothing is more irksome that the righteous MP or congressman who tells us that we have lost all right to complain about potholes or wars because we didn’t vote for or against them. Maybe the apathetic citizen didn’t vote for them, but he sure as heck paid for them – and that’s his mandate to moan. If we could come to some arrangement by which nonvoters could abstract themselves altogether from the farce that is modern government, then perhaps voting would reassert itself as a true act of civic-minded volunteerism. Democracy for the engaged; anarchy for the self-contained. Let’s call it “pay to play.”
I’m not anti-politics. On the contrary, I spend 90 percent of my life with a laptop on my lap writing about it. I’ve probably lost my fertility in the great cause of exposing Barack Obama’s insatiable appetite for dog meat. But my interest has shifted from partisan politics to the realm of ideas.
Show me a good thought and I’ll give it column inches. If it seems sometimes like I’m a schill for the American Right, it’s because they have the most interesting ideas at the moment. Be it their critique of the media, their emphasis upon constitutionality, or their concern for marrying the temporal and the spiritual, they never fail to fascinate. Among them, the most coherent (and therefore, from an academic point of view, most useful) is Ron Paul. That’s why I’ve written so much about him: he’s intellectually lively, consistent, engaging, and pure.
Conversely, my taste for big ideas is why I find it tougher to write either about the American Left or the diminishing spectrum of British politics. I was unmoved by the London mayoral contest – a battle between two personalities rather than contrasting philosophies. What differences there were had to be teased out, and they all typically came down to a few pence here, a couple of policemen there, and a refurbished sewer. All very important to people who consume whatever services the mayor controls but not the stuff that feeds the soul. Not enough to climb a barricade for. And not, in the opinion of 62 percent of Londoners, even worthy of a ten minute detour to the polling station. The silence of two thirds of the electorate was far louder than the applause for Boris Johnson when he won the final count.
Perhaps it’s time for a retreat from national democracy, for a return to the politics of the private sphere. This could translate into a greater emphasis upon individual or community activism. But most of all it should mean a revival of coffee house, salon culture. Away from the ceaseless mudslinging and name calling, we need a quieter, sophisticated debate about ideas. We’ve allowed politicians to set the tone of political debate for too long.