Why is U.S. Voter Turnout So Low?

Black Agenda Report executive editor Glen Ford responds to President Obama’s proposal for mandatory voting

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SHARMINI PERIES, EXEC. PRODUCER, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries coming to you from Baltimore, and welcome to this edition of the Glen Ford report.

Joining us from Plainfield, New Jersey is Glen Ford. Glen is the cofounder and executive editor of the Black Agenda Report, and author of The Big Lie: An Analysis of U.S. Media Coverage of the Grenada Invasion. Glen, thank you so much for joining us.

GLEN FORD, EXECUTIVE EDITOR, BLACKAGENDAREPORT.COM: Oh, thank you for giving me the opportunity.

PERIES: So Glen, what is in your notebook today?

FORD: Well, President Obama, last week he was in Cleveland speaking to a town hall meeting, and he decided to toy with the idea of mandatory voting in the United States. That is, some kind of penalty for people who didn’t vote. That idea was immediately shot down by the Republicans. They claimed that it would infringe on the right not to vote. And of course, that is a very valid argument.

But none of this addresses the reason that U.S. voting rates are the lowest in the entire industrialized world, and that reason couldn’t be that Americans are happier than the rest of the people in the rich countries. So happy that they don’t want to make any changes, and that’s why they don’t go out and vote. Every poll, every survey, shows that Americans are not a very happy people, compared to other people in the world. And it couldn’t be about, simply, America’s history of a racial exclusion in voting. That is, keeping black folks and brown people and Native Americans from being part of the electoral process, because American whites also vote in low numbers compared to the rest of the world.

So the reason is something else. And it really boils down to the fact that there is very little difference between the candidates, and between the parties in the United States, and these candidates are overwhelmingly answerable to the classes that have money in the United States. These days, that means Wall Street. And for that reason, people do not vote because there is very little reward for them voting.

In another kind of language we call this the total hegemony of the bourgeoisie. The United States, because of the total hegemony of the people with money, has the narrowest spectrum of electoral choices in the industrial world, and that’s why it has the lowest voter turnout in the industrial world. There’s no reward for people to vote Democrat except to feel good, and to defeat Republicans. So U.S. elections are based on fear. Republicans largely generating fear of black folks and other minorities, and Democrats generating fear of Republicans. But in terms of agendas and results that would flow from voting for these parties, their constituencies are always frustrated.

Obama talks a big game about being against the domination of money. And he was doing that last week. But we all should remember that he was the guy who wrecked the public election finance system back in 2008. He opted not to be part of that system, and he did it because he was raising a lot more money than his Republican opponent, John McCain. He was raising a lot more money on Wall Street than John McCain. So it was in Obama’s interests to get out of the public finance system, and that wrecked that system.

The Democrats mostly talk big about voting as an appeal to black people for very clear and obvious historical reasons. But the Democrats really only want to corral the black vote so that they can put that vote with other parts of the Democratic base and get a winning majority. They don’t want black people voting their own political convictions, and the reason for that is that black people are the most left-wing constituency in the United States.

So Democrats are in the lead, and have been for the last three decades, in trying to break up black voter concentrations. They are always opposed to districts in which there is a black supermajority. And instead, they try to break up those concentrations and spread the reliably Democratic black vote around in several districts, and that gives Democrats a chance to win more seats.

But it does not give black people a chance to have a political conversation that is based upon their values and their political ideals. All we get out of that kind of process, for those blacks who do win as candidates, are black folks who have appeal to white voters, and an appeal to big business. But we don’t get a black politics out of that. The black political conversation isn’t allowed to develop.

Now of course, if the United States had proportional representation, which most of Europe does, that would answer some of these concerns in terms of developing an honest and sincere and workable black kind of politics. But the last time that came up was under a Democratic president, Bill Clinton, in the early ’90s, when Lani Guinier, a black intellectual and lawyer, was up for the post of head of the U.S. Justice Department’s civil rights division. And it was discovered by the media that Lani Guinier pushed for a voting system that resembled proportional representation and would give blacks a clearer kind of way to express their own political choices. President Clinton quickly backed off of her, although she was supposed to be a close friend of the family, and she never got that job.

So this whole conversation on the part of Democrats about being in favor of democracy rings very hollow. Democracy is a people being able to express itself as a people, and the United States system certainly does not allow that. It does not give people much reason to vote.

PERIES: Glen, when African-Americans overwhelmingly in record numbers showed up at the polls for the presidential election in 2008, voting President Obama into office, there was a certain heightened public engagement of African-Americans that has now dissipated in the last elections. The participation of African-Americans went the lowest we have seen, and that’s the last congressional elections. What has caused this decline?

FORD: Well as you pointed out, black voter participation during the Obama campaign, and also in the second campaign in 2012, was actually higher than historic white voter participation. So that’s not an extremely difficult barrier to overcome, in terms of comparing black voting rates and white voting rates.

But what did we get? What was the product of that? We got Obama, a candidate who has spent all of his life being palatable to white people, and palatable to big business. This was the most that black folks could achieve under this kind of winner-take-all, duopoly, two-big-business-party system. And what did it get us? It got us a continuity on most fronts of previous Republican policies, and certainly an even closer relationship between the U.S. administration and Wall Street. Not an empowerment of black people. An empowerment of someone else. Of some other folks.

PERIES: Glen, as always, thank you so much for joining us today.

FORD: Thank you.

PERIES: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.

End

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