Winston Churchill said that 'the best argument against democracy is a five minute conversation with the average voter.' This little quip came to mind as I was watching a famous contemporary comedian conduct an interview with an average Josephine on the street. He asked this young lady, who looked to be about 20 or 21, if she knew the war in which George Washington fought. Her answer: WW I. You may find that hard to believe, but while that was a question most Americans could answer, the fact of the matter is that this woman was more reflective of the state of the electorate than you might care to think.
Studies and practical experience have shown time and again that the average American's knowledge is woefully inadequate in the areas of politics, current events and history —— all subjects that one must be conversant in to be able to do one's civic duty and make informed decisions in the voting booth. Now, since an informed electorate is the greatest defense against tyranny, the fact that the historical context of many of those who vote extends back only to Eminem's debut album should scare each and every one of us.
Of course, while it is true that each succeeding generation is more deeply immersed in a decadent popular culture and more devoid of important knowledge than the one that preceded it, the existence of uninformed people is not unprecedented. What is unprecedented, though, is our obsession with encouraging such people to exercise greater control over our lives and those of our progeny, over policies that can send us down a road toward prosperity or one toward destruction, by encouraging them to vote.
What I'm talking about is that another election is approaching and, as always, we see organizations that launch 'Get Out the Vote Drives.' These may manifest themselves in MTV's 'Rock the Vote' commercials or a radio spot telling us to 'Choose or Lose,' or some other such nonsense. Not surprisingly, these announcements usually air in media that cater to people who would never vote if left to their own devices —— to uninformed people. It's a classic case of the blind leading the blind: misguided or manipulative people trying to rally what you could call the 'idiot vote.'
Call old Winston and me intellectual snobs. People often complain when only fifty percent of all registered voters vote; the lament is that it constitutes a threat to our republic. I, on the other hand, wish the turnout were five percent. I know, I know, I sound like a pompous elitist. And guess what? I plead guilty. But I also understand the principle that governs: if people don't even have the get up and go to take the initiative to go out and vote, then you can bet your bottom dollar that they don't have the greater get up and go it takes to inform themselves on the issues —— in which case they shouldn't be voting in the first place.
The truth of the matter is that this is a problem that takes care of itself when we let nature take its course. Those who don't care may not inform themselves, but more often than not a result of that will be that they won't vote, so no harm done. The problem arises when we put the cart before the horse and encourage those who can't yet drive to take the wheel. It's a bit like encouraging individuals with no medical training to provide medical care and to try to cure others' ills, because you think there aren't enough doctors. What you should do is encourage them to become schooled in the healing arts, a by—product of which will be that more will naturally want to help their fellow man and cure his ills.
The same holds true here. If we really wanted to perform a service for society we would focus on what renders these people not only uninterested in curing our nation's ills, but also incapable of doing so: ignorance. A failure to vote is a by—product of ignorance, and starting to vote is a by—product of ceasing to be ignorant. So the solution should be obvious: educate people and motivate them to care about matters larger than themselves and the problem will take care of itself. What we shouldn't do is advocate malpractice by encouraging butchers to wield scalpels. We should remember the Hippocratic Oath: 'First, do no harm.'
Lest I be guilty of besmirching the reputation of the great Mr. Churchill, I would like to point out that he was no opponent of democratic types of government. For, while he did utter the words I attributed to him, he also said that democracy was the worst form of government in the world . . . except for all the rest. But democratic government doesn't work absent that indispensable defense against tyranny: an informed electorate. This, incidentally, is why we don't allow children to vote. But there are those who don't want to vote because their maturity level makes them little more than overgrown children, and it is dangerous to rouse them from their cribs and usher them into voting booths. These people's failure to vote isn't what constitutes a threat to democracy, it's the success of those who are obsessed with cajoling them into voting that does. So, perhaps Churchill had it only slightly wrong. Maybe the truth is that the best argument against democracy is a five minute conversation with the average get—out—the—vote drive organizer.
You know, this all begs an interesting question: what does it tell you about a group's agenda and ideas if it thinks that it has a vested interest in getting out the idiot vote? That's just a little food for thought for those whose drive to vote originates from within. But remember, if someone doesn't want to vote, it's probably for a very good reason. And, most of all, remember that when the wrong people choose, we all lose.
Selwyn Duke is a writer in Larchmont, New York.