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Why don’t we vote?

In May of 2013, The Diane Rehm Show featured a discussion of voting and citizen participation in politics.  As part of it, there was a general lamentation at the level of political disengagement on the part of American citizens and a general soul-searching about why that would be and what we might do about it.

I wasn’t hearing anything about what I presumed to be a driving issue behind that apathy, so I wrote sent this in to kindle a discussion.  As far as I know, my theory didn’t make it onto the air.

28 May 2013

A hypothesis for discussion:

At least part of the reason for the erosion of citizen participation — of the feeling that an individual cannot influence policy — is the movement throughout the 20th century (and continuing now) toward the centralization of political power.

The chance of a citizen influencing his city council or mayor is fairly high. In a small state like New Hampshire, he or she might have a decent shot at influencing the state legislature or the governor.

But, in a huge state like California, the likelihood of a citizen having such influence is very thin. At the federal level, an individual is merely one of 300 million others; his chance of being heard and of influencing the course of policy in the Congress, or of getting the ear of the President, is essentially nil. Just try writing a letter to your Congressman or Senator and see how much result you get beyond finding yourself forevermore the target of their campaign missives.

Add to that the fact that, the more centralized the rule-making power, the more general and uniform the rules must be. If I influence my city council, I might tailor a rule to my local concerns. But, even if I could influence the Congress, they must make rules that encompass not only my needs but the needs of people in New York City and Los Angeles, and the needs of farmers in Wyoming, and of loggers in Maine, and of everyone everywhere else. Really, with a need for that broad a scope, how much influence could my local preferences have?

© Copyright 2013, Augustus P. Lowell

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