Let’s have a discussion. The topic may seem controversial at first glance but one that is worthy of thought. In fact, think of this as a thought experiment; an idea you may not agree with, yet is not without merit.
As I write this America is celebrating Memorial Day. A national holiday that asks us to collectively reflect on the sacrifices made by those who have died serving in our armed forces. Did you know that today less than 1% of Americans serve in the armed forces? This is a stunning number given how many “patriots” we have on social media ready to cry “Treason!” when they see or hear something that causes offense. Given today’s climate you would think half of our country served some time in the armed forces. 9% of our population are veterans. Fewer and fewer people are signing up to serve. I can only hope this trend continues and becomes a driving reason for fewer wars and more diplomacy.
If only 1% is willing to defend our country, what should the other 99% do? What is the least we should be willing to do to serve our nation?
If you had asked me this question an month ago I would have said, Vote. “Voting in elections”, I would have said, “is not only a right, but a duty that every American should exercise”. In the past, I have argued that America should make presidential election day a National Holiday just as they do in other countries. My conviction about voting was strong, and it was my long held belief that those who did not vote were doing the country a disservice and were partially responsible for the D.C swamp that is the American government. But then I heard about Walter Lippmann, and I had to seriously reconsider my opinion.
Most of you know I am a huge, huge fan of podcasts; so much so that I dedicated a past blog to some of my favorites. One that has grown on me is Stuff They Don’t Want You to Know. It started out as a web series that looked at the lighter side of conspiracies, but is now a be-weekly podcast that looks at the darker side of history.
A few weeks ago an episode aired titled Is Democracy Impossible (May 2, 2018) in which the hosts talked about the controversial subject that pushes against democracy. This is how I came to learn about Walter Lippmann.
Lippmann was a newspaper columnist whose influence was felt worldwide. By the time of his retirement Lippmann was the most respected political columnist in the world. Here is a quick political bio on Lippmann.
“While studying at Harvard (B.A., 1909), Lippmann was influenced by the philosophers William James and George Santayana. He helped to found (1914) The New Republic and served as its assistant editor under Herbert David Croly. Through his writings in that liberal weekly and through direct consultation, he influenced Pres. Woodrow Wilson, who is said to have drawn on Lippmann’s ideas for the post-World War I settlement plan (Fourteen Points) and for the concept of the League of Nations. Lippmann was briefly (1917) an assistant to Secretary of War Newton D. Baker. Wilson sent him to take part in the negotiations for the Treaty of Versailles (1919)”.
Lippmann started out as a champion of voting rights and felt it was a duty of all American citizens. But as time went on, as the world become smaller and global relationships became more complex, and witnessed less than ideal candidates being voted into office Lippmann developed a startling argument; he came to believe that “the general public could no longer judge public issues rationally, since the speed and condensation required in the mass media tend to produce slogans rather than interpretations”.
This is a two-pronged argument. Lippmann believed that the general public was unable to fully comprehend the complex global issues facing the country and that the media was unable or unwilling to educate the public; it was easier to dissect and strip the issues into digestible sound bites. Ouch! That cut may run deep, but can we truly argue against it given our current state of media and collective short attention span?
Lippmann published a book in 1922 titled Public Opinion. In part he argues that:
A revolution is taking place, infinitely more significant than any shifting of economic power…. Under the impact of propaganda, not necessarily in the sinister meaning of the word alone, the old constants of our thinking have become variables. It is no longer possible, for example, to believe in the original dogma of democracy; that the knowledge needed for the management of human affairs comes up spontaneously from the human heart. Where we act on that theory we expose ourselves to self-deception, and to forms of persuasion that we cannot verify. It has been demonstrated that we cannot rely upon intuition, conscience, or the accidents of casual opinion if we are to deal with the world beyond our reach.
In a nutshell, Lippmann is arguing that the world is now intertwined and complex. Most people are incapable of understanding this complexity and don’t take the time to learn how the actions taken by governments will impact the economic and social fabric of society. It is no longer useful to think we can vote from our conscience, since our conscience may be deluding and keeping us ill-informed. The media feeds on this delusion be spinning casual opinions that do not fully inform us as to what is in our best interest.
Again, it is hard to argue against him. Many Americans no longer balance their own checkbooks and or are deep in debt and can’t understand why. How are they to fully understand what lifting or putting more restrictions on Iran will do to gas prices or cause fuller ripples in the Middle East? How about Trump’s slogan, “America First”? It may sound good to working Americans, (sound bite) but what does it really mean, and how will this attitude reflect on the cost of consumer goods? Do you know? Does the media tell us the truth? And if they do, whose truth are they repeating?
Lippmann didn’t just argue against what we now term “low informed voters”, he was dismayed to see one-issue voters; those who would vote for a candidate based on his or her stand on a certain issue alone. These voters, Lippmann argued often voted against their overall self-interest. A good example of this is when a voter decides on a candidate based on his or her anti-abortion stand. This is hot button issue today that sees mass voting for politicians who want to limit or outright strip away abortion rights on one hand, and on the other, making it hard to get access to birth control, leading to more abortions. Where is the logic is this?
It was in this argument that I stopped mentally arguing against Lippmann’s ideas. I shut my mouth and opened my mind. As the hosts of Stuff They Don’t Want You to Know gave more and more examples of how one-issue voting can cause over-all damage to democracy I started to form a thought experiment; what if only those who are truly informed on all things that mattered voted? Of course the first obvious problem that comes from this thought experiment is figuring out who decides who can vote and do they have democracy’s best interest at heart?
Recently Bill Maher had guest Dambisa Moyo on Real Time with Bill Maher. Moyo is an international economist and author who analyzes the macroeconomy and global affairs. She has witnessed democracy in several forms and is in the same camp as Lippmann. One of her suggestions regarding voting is to test voters, much like the test we give to new citizens. She was criticized for suggesting what seemed like a type of Poll Test. Something the Southern states tried to employ to weed out African American voters. No, I don’t think the answer is to test people; after all voting is a right and we should be able to freely exercise that right without restrictions. But Lippmann and Moyo’s view does beg the question; must you vote? I say no. Not if you vote based on a gut feeling, or one-issue without doing some homework and reflection on what your vote will do for your over-all self-interest as well as the country’s.
If you can’t bring yourself to watch debates, if you can’t take an afternoon or evening to read about candidates and how their views and voting record will effect us all, please stay home. Don’t vote. That is the very least you can do for our country.
Now, it’s your turn to weigh in. Tell me what you think.
New York Times As Fewer Americans Serve, Growing Gap Is Found Between Civilians and Military
Stuff They Don’t Want You To Know, episode Is Democracy Impossible (May 2, 2018)
Walter Lippmann, Public Opinion. 1922 https://wwnorton.com/college/history/america-essential-learning/docs/WLippmann-Public_Opinion-1922.pdf
Walter Lippmann. Britannica.com https://www.britannica.com/biography/Walter-Lippmann#ref101232
4 thoughts on “Voting is a right. But should you?”
Of course, one issue voters are often the most likely to vote. That, incidentally, was how Prohibition was voted into the Constitution in 1919, an example that was contemporaneous to Lippmann.
Lippmann wasn’t alone in his era in believing democracy was a government of fools; H. L. Mencken held similar opinions. Just do a search on his name and “democracy” for many cynical comments. Sadly, Mencken’s logic led him to view humanity as divided into a rabble and the superior people, which he often described in terms implying they are a hereditary class.
The Founding Fathers weren’t always that thrilled with democracy; hence their willingness to support property qualifications on voting or office holding, and the peculiar nature of the Electoral College. But we no longer think property should be a requirement . . . although I’ve heard voices on the right arguing that if you don’t pay income tax (ignoring all the other taxes one pays), you shouldn’t have a right to vote.
One of the problems of getting knowledgeable voters: what knowledge do you need? One of the more common “debating” tactics in social media is to demand of a person whether they have certain experience or already know “x,” and if they don’t, to say they aren’t qualified to vote. It’s not a way to encourage debate or engagement; it’s a way to try to shut up opponents.
But let’s take an example: economic issues. What counts? Just mainstream neoclassical economics? Marxian economics? Monetarism? Keynesian economics? Here’s a situation in which the bulk of the population, if it has any opinions at all, might be called naive capitalists. Do they determine what people need to know? Or do the experts?
Let me offer a contrary view. I am less concerned with low-information voters than I am with voters with poor reasoning skills. A Facebook friend of mine recently posted a clip from a popular TV pundit, presumably approving of the pundit’s views. I watched it, and stopped counting the errors in reasoning after a while. Why had my friend thought it a good piece? Because it confirmed my friend’s political views. And therefore my friend didn’t bother to question it. That’s the sort of person I worry about, one who doesn’t reason, especially when presented with “information” that confirms an existing bias.
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Have you read Lippmann’s book? One of his main points focused on how we allow the media to form and shape our opinions. It was true then and it is true now. I consider people like your friend (and many of mine who do the same thing) to be low-informed voters.
Thanks for mentioning the differing economic philosophies. This was something Lippmann points out; it would take an informed economist to understand how the differing approaches effect each other, never mind the working stiff who is just trying to keep his head above water. The more I think about it, the more dire the prospects seem when deciding who runs our government is left up to everyday voters. Though I cannot imagine a better alternative.
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I have not read Lippmann’s book, I’m sorry to say.
It’s easier to identify the media influence in Lippmann’s day, and in our today, when the media has become as polarized as the politics. And when that comes to ready acceptance of comfortable lies, that’s a bad thing.
But was it much better in the 1942-1973 era, when almost all the media had the same mainstream viewpoint. There was no conflict over truth, because everyone agreed on what the truth was, even when it wasn’t.
Dreadful as these times are, in some ways they are progress from half a century ago. Then, only mainstream values were allowed in the media, and differing from those values made you both wrong and invisible. Which was great if you didn’t want the media to raise the crackpot notions of the John Birch Society, less admirable when they didn’t bother to inquire into whether marijuana was a dangerous drug or whether we were winning in Vietnam. Yes, we get the crackpots now, and people disbelieving in things that are really true. Maybe that’s the price we have to pay for an open exchange of ideas in the media.
Even so, I agree with you that trusting in democracy to govern does seem an uncertain gamble these days. The problem is that ultimately government does rest on the cooperation, if not the consent, of the governed, and democracy is one of the ways to ensure that that cooperation is more or less freely given.
I want to say a few words about your statement in your blog post that reads, in part, ” Fewer and fewer people are signing up to serve. I can only hope this trend continues and becomes a driving reason for fewer wars and more diplomacy.” — I fear that as more and more people fail to “sign up to serve” that there will be a military personnel crisis sometime in the future that will cause the warlords to push for re-establishing the “Draft.” I certainly will never believe that as long as every service person’s flesh and blood has been weighed and measured and assigned a monetary value by those who cherish war for its profit potential there will be fewer and fewer wars. Our Military Industrial Complex thrives on war and on war materials and I am afraid that war has now become a sustaining factor for our economy and it will take a dire national crisis to change things.
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