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Mock the Vote

Oct 10, 2011, Vol. 17, No. 04 • By THE SCRAPBOOK
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The Scrapbook is not superstitious, but there was a curious, and slightly disconcerting, convergence of Deep Think last week that caught our attention. It began with a front-page story in the New York Times—“As Scorn for Vote Grows, Protests Surge Around the Globe” by Nicholas Kulish (Sept. 28)—which could be excused as one of the Times’s routine efforts (usually confined to the Arts pages) to rekindle the sixties spirit. Or maybe not. The article chronicled a worldwide cycle of mass protests—from India and Israel to Greece and Spain—against elected governments, reflecting “wariness, even contempt, toward traditional politicians and the democratic political process they preside over.” One young Spanish woman summed it up this way: “Our parents are grateful because they’re voting,” Marta Solanas told the Times. “We’re the first generation to say that voting is worthless.”

Photo of voting booths

Well, not quite: Senorita Solanas is just the latest generation of comfortably alienated middle-class youth to find their parents’ institutions off-putting, or the trappings of democratic politics and governance hopelessly bourgeois. You expect such parlor nihilism from the young, and you certainly expect the Times, now safely in the hands of Baby Boom editors, to print it on Page One. 

What you are less likely to expect is a chorus of support from people who, theoretically, should know better. First, there was former OMB director Peter Orszag, an alumnus of President Obama’s economic team, who took to the pages of the New Republic to deplore America’s polarization and lament that Washington seems incapable of getting things done. This is hardly the first time The Scrapbook has heard a politician complain about dissent, or exhort the machinery of government to do his bidding. But it was the first time we had heard an ex-cabinet officer suggest that “we need to minimize the harm from legislative inertia by relying more on automatic policies and depoliticized commissions for certain policy decisions.”

Wrote Orszag, “we need to counter the gridlock of our political institutions by making them a bit less democratic.” 

Once again, The Scrapbook is accustomed to journalists who profess impatience with the machinery of democracy, and look longingly to the rule of the enlightened and anointed. Such distinguished citizens as Thomas L. Friedman and Fareed Zakaria routinely exalt the energetic leadership in the People’s Republic of China, where such annoyances as voting, Republicans, public sentiment, and free speech are in short supply. We are less accustomed, however, to hearing such talk from political practitioners such as Orszag, or the elected Democratic governor of North Carolina, Bev Perdue. We can’t say whether Perdue shares Orszag’s faith in rule by “automatic policies” and “depoliticized commissions,” but after listening to her last week, we know what she doesn’t like.

I think we ought to suspend, perhaps, elections for Congress for two years and just tell them we won’t hold it against them, whatever decisions they make, to just let them help this country recover.

Now, it is true that Governor Perdue instantly recognized the implications of what she had said, and sent word the next day to the press that she had been “joking . . . sarcastic.” But The Scrapbook has listened carefully to what she said, and believes she meant it. And why shouldn’t she? Her party lost its momentum in Congress after the 2010 elections, and during the last year has had considerably less success enacting Obama’s agenda. There’s no undoing the results of the last election; the obvious solution is to abolish the next.

Which, of course, will not happen. But it is surely a measure of the state of mind among Democrats that, having failed to persuade voters in the last round, they daydream about preventing them from voting in the next. Everyone in Washington believes that public opinion is on their side, and that if the other guy would just shut up and act bipartisan, Congress would do what we want them to do. The only difference between Peter Orszag and Bev Perdue is that Perdue wants nothing to be tested at the ballot box, and Orszag wants to write the rules and regulations himself. But both know exactly what Americans need and deserve.

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