Essay: In Praise of Low Voter Turnout

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After such a century, it is a form of salvation, of social health, for politics to be in acute and precipitous decline. As a Portuguese ex-leftist ( said of his country's recent renaissance, "Portugal's success is that its politics no longer dominate everything."

At its headiest, the aim of 20th century politics was the transformation of man and society by means of power. This great project -- politics as redemption -- has ended in failure on a breathtaking scale: not just economic and political but also ecological, spiritual and, not surprising for an enterprise of such overweening hubris, moral. The deeper meaning of the overthrow of communism is the realization that man can shape neither history nor society by Five-Year Plans, and that attempts to contradict this truth must end in the grotesque. The revulsion with politics reflects the view that when politicians go about tinkering with something as organic as a poor family or a rural community by means of a federal welfare program or an enormous dam, the law of unintended consequences prevails.

George Bush's great good fortune is that he is a man utterly incapable of vision at a time when the people do not want vision and do not need it. Vision is for Khomeini and Castro, for Jesse Jackson and Pat Robertson. Happily, if only for now, Americans will have none of it.

Which is why when almost every pundit wrings his hands in despair at low voter turnout -- some even feel obliged to propose creative schemes to induce people to vote -- I am left totally unmoved. Low voter turnout means that people see politics as quite marginal to their lives, as neither salvation nor ruin. That is healthy. Low voter turnout is a leading indicator of contentment. For a country founded on the notion that that government is best that governs least, it seems entirely proper that Americans should in large numbers register a preference against politics by staying home on Election Day.

A few weeks ago, a producer from public television came to ask my advice about planning coverage for the 1992 elections. Toward the end, she raised a special problem: how to get young adults interested in political coverage. I offered the opinion that 19-year-olds who sit in front of a television watching politics could use professional help. At that age they should be playing ball and looking for a date. They'll have time enough at my age to worry about the mortgage and choosing a candidate on the basis of his views on monetary policy.

To say that, of course, is to violate current League of Women Voters standards of good citizenship. Let others struggle valiantly to raise the political awareness of all citizens. Let them rage against the tides of indifference. They will fail, and when they do, relax. Remember that indifference to politics leaves all the more room for the things that really count: science, art, religion, family and play.

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