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March 03, 2005

Why voter apathy is a good thing

Posted by Digby Anderson

In this election year, there is much concern about voter apathy and whether the turnout will be even lower than in 2001. The uninspiring nature of today's politicians is usually blamed for this apathy. Digby Anderson does not share this view. He argues that what is wrong with British politics, and much else in British society, is not the fault of politicians, but of the decadent and trivial tastes of the public. As with everything the Social Affairs Unit publishes, the views expressed in this article are the author's own, not those of the Social Affairs Unit, its Trustees, Advisors, or Director.

Voter apathy is currently said to be a problem. I don't understand why. It is true that many voters are uninterested in politics, ignorant, swayed by trivia and careless of their country. They are like this not only at general elections but all the time. It is surely better then that they are apathetic when it comes to elections. No doubt the people who complain about apathy would like the voters to be informed, serious and dutiful about politics all the time, but this is unlikely. Initiatives to increase electoral turnouts will achieve the worst of both worlds, ignorant, uninterested and selfish people actually having a significant effect on political life at elections. What we should worry about is the high level of voting.

Those who - misguidedly - worry about apathy currently blame it on politicians. Politicians have been less than truthful. They have used spin. They have thus turned people off politics. I doubt this too. However this complaint is interesting. It is part of modern tendency to blame those who cater for the public for whatever disgusting state the public happens to be in. If the public are fat, it is because the wicked food companies have encouraged them to eat crisps. If children don't go to school it is because their teachers have failed to interest them. If the elderly are poor, this is because the government has not pursued the right pension policy. The truth is quite otherwise. To tell it is to risk deep unpopularity. It is that most of the fat children, the truants and elderly poor are the result of the way they and their parents' have behaved. But no one dares to be critical of the public.

Not only does the public make itself fat, ignorant and poor but, insofar as it has a relationship with politicians, that relationship works in the opposite direction to that supposed by the apathy-worriers. The trivial and decadent tastes of the public debauch politics. Why do politicians start inane campaigns about slugs and salt? Because surveys show that the public expects politicians to do something - it doesn't know or care what - about obesity. Why do politicians not tell the truth about pensions? Because the public prefers comforting lies. And it is the same with the media? Why is television bursting with filth, sentimentality and inanity? Because that is what the viewers want.

There is a man standing at the elbow of every food company chief, media mogul and government minister. When this man sees that his boss has the slightest inclination to sell something of quality, to raise media standards or to tell the truth, this man tugs at the elbow, "there are no sales to be had there, no circulation there, no votes there, the public won't wear it". Those who cater for the public cannot, of course, admit this truth that the public gets the goods, the television and the government policies and behaviour that it deserves. It is not tactful to be rude about your customers, your viewers and your voters. It is however a fairly obvious truth. Electoral democracies and markets are both devices which ensure that those who cater for the public, cater for the public. So if you want to know why the media or politics is in the foul state that it is in - and there is no doubt about that - then look at the public it has to cater for, upon whom it depends.

It is not a pretty picture. It is a public that lies, for instance, in claiming to be sick and taking days off when it isn't. It is unfaithful taking solemn vows of marriage and trampling all over them less than ten years later. It is mean, giving a third of what the American public gives to charity. It is irresponsible, begetting children then deserting them when adultery turns into divorce. It is improvident, not making adequate provision for old age. It is materialistic voraciously consuming goods and piling up debts. It is violent and destructive having the highest rates of crime ever. It is rude, loud and dresses shabbily, eats and drinks in the streets, has no manners. It is increasingly pagan forsaking its over demanding Christian God for New Age nonsense and the cult of celebrity. Worst of all, those among it who do not regularly lie, betray their husbands and wives, alternatively indulge and neglect their children, burgle fight and swear, tolerate such behaviour in others. There are some fairly clear criteria which have emerged from the study of the decline of past civilizations. By them, this civilization is well into decline.

That's the true problem, not the behaviour of politicians. That society blames the politicians for its state shows just how far the decline has gone.

Digby Anderson retired as Director of the Social Affairs Unit in 2004.

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Your own examples disprove your point. To take just a few:

"It is a public that lies, for instance, in claiming to be sick and taking days off when it isn't."

It's the government which imposes the absurd sick leave rules which give the public an overwhelming incentive to deceive in this way.

"It is unfaithful taking solemn vows of marriage and trampling all over them less than ten years later."

It's the government-funded media which would determinedly ridicule and laugh off the stage any politician who attempted to address this issue.

"It is mean, giving a third of what the American public gives to charity."

It is the government's taking a huge proportion of peoples' income and distributing it to all sorts of causes which they don't agree with which suppresses private charity.

"It is irresponsible, begetting children then deserting them when adultery turns into divorce.

It's the government's absurd tinkering with the rules concerning marriage and marriage breakup over the years which has led to young people opting out of marriage altogether, or 'gaming the system' when they want to adjust the nature of their relationships.

It is improvident, not making adequate provision for old age.

Why should they, when the current means testing and uncertain extentions into the future make saving for later versus consumption now an irrational act?

The truth is that people refuse to fit into the straitjacket engineered for them by an intrusive, busybody 'nanny state'. They refuse to read from the script they are presented with. Given the option to vote for meaningless alternatives, they decline to vote. If the lives they end up leading are diminished and degraded as a result, say again who is to blame?

Posted by: Meme Chose at March 3, 2005 11:56 PM

A generation past, when many of us went to Washington on the coat-tails of Ronald Reagan, we believed that the people had been traduced by their leaders and were given government that they neither wanted nor deserved.

I am now firmly convinced that Digby Anderson is correct, as was American essayist H L Mencken when he wrote that "Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard."

Posted by: s j masty at March 5, 2005 01:58 PM

Meme Chose makes some good points in his fisking of Digby Anderson's withering rant, but I would take issue with one:
that the government's policy on sick leave incites excessive malingering. Seems to me that doctors who issue sick notes to 'patients' who they know full well are malingerers, but can't be arsed to tell them so (often out of fear of assault) are the real culprits here. They are the key to the abuse of the NHS and employers in general. The 'public', or a fair proportion of it, will take advantage of any perk when it knows it's that easy and that it won't be suffer sanctions or get sacked. It has weighed up the cowardly reponse of GPs and even A & E housemen/women and know that a menacing and arrogant assertion is enough to get a 'script' and a sick-note. It's a racket and our gentle quacks are co-conspirators by default. I remember Anthony Daniels in his other guise and organ 'fessing up to it some time ago in an amusing vignette on the subject.

Posted by: Frank Pulley at March 9, 2005 02:54 AM

well said :)

Posted by: scott at October 7, 2005 12:27 PM

apathy cld be seen as a good thing as people are on the whole satisfied enough NOT to go out and vote to change things. there are jobs, there is a welfare state which keeps us alive, mothers and children r looked after, we have a NHS and schools.

dont get me wrong, there are many flaws but on the whole, its not enough for us to bother. its our fault

Posted by: rebecca at March 9, 2006 05:22 PM

The Voter That Witholds His Vote Has The Right To Do So Because He Pays For It

With No Votes At All,
Parliament Will Fall,
And Deliver To The Crown

The Act of Knot Doing,
As Confucius Would Say,
It Has The Power To Bring

The Art of Knot Voting,
As Confucius Would Say,
It Is The Key To Power,
At The End of The Day

Posted by: Tom Tanner at October 24, 2008 09:25 PM
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