Few people remember the Public Affairs Act of 1975. The legislation noiselessly received all the appropriate votes and knowing backslaps, skimming along with little fanfare until a group of University of Cincinnati researchers started asking questions. Led by a political scientist named George Bishop, the researchers asked Americans across the country the same question: “Do you favor or oppose the Public Affairs Act of 1975?” For some reason, the act that nobody scrutinized yielded surprisingly divisive views now that it had been codified—the research team discovered that about one-third of respondents expressed a definitive preference one way or another on this heretofore uncontroversial legislative throw-away. Naturally, nothing happened.
The act lived unspectacularly for the next 20 years until a Washington Post poll asked a similar question: What did Americans think now that the act was poised for repeal? Did it matter that it was the “Republican Congress” that wanted to roll back the act’s obscure gains? What about President Clinton’s support of the repeal? Again, the public voiced a fierce split. Again, nothing happened.
The thing is, the Public Affairs Act of 1975 never existed. It was a fabrication of Bishop’s team designed to prove a point: People prefer feigning authority to admitting ignorance. Those who study polling call these phantom opinions “non-attitudes” since they are the product of harried, on-the-spot guessing rather than actual deliberation. Now you can paw over this and conclude that social scientists are dry blowhards fixated on quantifying collective dullness, or you can come clean and admit that you retreated to Google before the second paragraph so you could ready an opinion. It’s that time again. Every four years, we come together as a nation to commission a new leader, and every time it turns into another referendum on how misinformed, gullible, or just plain dumb we the people can be. The greatest symptoms? Apathy, poor showings on man-in-the-street late-night TV segments, and that dreaded thing known as “low voter turnout.”
Before we slump our shoulders and start talking declension, let’s think about that last thing. If we refer back to the archival footage, we find that only 6 percent of the nation’s population voted for George Washington. This astonishingly tiny sum has a lot to do with the fact that only adult white males were eligible for the vote, but during the entire colonial period turnout was still dreadfully low. Participation grew steadily through the 19th century as roughly three-quarters of eligible voters made their way to the booth, whether it was by horseback or as part of an elaborate, flowery parade. The numbers dipped again in the 20th century. In 2000, about half of eligible voters made it to the polls—which isn’t so bad, considering the turnout percentage was similar in the early ’20s. The figure is sure to be higher this time, though our registration and turnout numbers will still pale in comparison to many of our esteemed democratic peers.
It’s a commonly held misperception that Americans don’t vote. Americans love to vote. The problem is that we vote for inane things. We vote on competing but really conspiring blends of Coca-Cola. We vote on who we believe will win the World Series or whether a given coach bungled a crucial third down. We vote people to the zenith of prefab pop stardom, often over the objections of bona fide talent scouts. We vote on issues of other people’s matrimony and during the commercial breaks, Internet providers and cable music video channels mainline election-year imagery and jockey for our “votes.” We are quizzed in the streets, on the Web, and on television for our views. The language of “voting” is everywhere when, in reality, it usually amounts to nothing more than a bar graph and the threat of future spam. Democracy? The free expression of ideas? Civil society? Sometimes it seems like Americans can’t get enough of it.
Public life brims with opportunities to take part in collective decision-making. I mean, reality television seems far more like “direct democracy” than the presidential contests, which still have to travel the arcane thruways of the electoral college for their legitimacy. There is no electoral college on Fox; they want to know what I think, not what some distant secondary representative does on my behalf. Consider this very unscientific anecdote. Approximately 100 million voters turned out to elect Al Gore in 2000. In a similarly tight race, roughly 65 million votes were cast during the final episode of this year’s American Idol, in which Fantasia Barrino emerged victorious over Diana DeGarmo. Of course, most of the Idol votes came from kids punching in early and often, but is this not the sign of a healthy democracy, to care so much about an outcome that one resorts to cheating?
In a weird way, the noted sociologist Robert Putnam got it wrong. In his splashy 2000 book Bowling Alone, he tracked the decline of the American community by looking at how isolated people had become. The feeling of mutuality—the thing Alexis de Tocqueville pointed to as the preservative of our political culture—had seemingly evaporated as fewer Americans were joining clubs, mingling with friends, or, worse yet, bowling in leagues.
But mutuality has never felt stronger, and I’m not just talking about how the current regime basically bombed the masses out of apathy. Everywhere you turn, there are opportunities to voice some kind of civic sentiment or join a modest, imagined nation of fellow travelers. What is more Athenian than the convenience of choosing between two options on your Sprint PCS phone? What better polis than linking to funny, like-minded blogs from the comfort of my own futon? The participatory impulses of the masses are as strong as ever—Americans are getting down with a whole gamut of activities that resemble politics and ape the shape, form, and logic of democracy, and it has all helped foster an illusion that politics, like choosing a setup man out of the bullpen, is easy. Think about how John Kerry is scolded for thinking too much about issues usually framed in strict, Manichaean terms.
But there’s something missing in all of this: deliberation. The proliferation of outlets badgering us for opinions or flattering us as experts has produced a great deal of noise but little actual discourse. How do I know which of these tubby redheads would make a better Danny Bonaduce? I’m voting for the one with the better shoes. We have grown used to cavalierly expressing “non-attitudes” rather than thinking through possible choices or imagining better alternatives. Whether all of this practice voting has prepared us to make an educated choice next month is a wholly different matter. And even if it doesn’t, that’s why the framers wisely included the safeguarding provisions of Article II of the Public Affairs Act.
Hua Hsu is a student in the history of American civilization at Harvard. He writes about music for Slate and The Wire.