by Stanley Schwartz

In a recent article in The New Herald titled “Why Voting Doesn’t Matter,” Jordan Poyner issued an excellent call for community, engagement, and social enrichment to fill out the contours of a healthy democracy. His sincere conclusion embraces the following question: “Voting will never matter in the way that we want it to, but why are we asking so much of it in the first place?” This is a query that implicates American history in a way that may provide insight into the broader issues Poyner addresses. In 1963, American political scientist Willmoore Kendall argued that his field over-emphasized the importance of voting and elections. Kendall argued that this strayed from the Founders’ design for American politics, to which he was loyal. Kendall defended the Madisonian conception of American politics that considered voting and elections a small part of American political life.[1] This Madisonian conception is precisely the one Poyner points us towards. Attempting to answering his question naturally evolves into an inquiry as to where in American history the people moved away from the Madisonian conception of robust political engagement towards the current position where voting and elections dominate our political focus. Examining our nation’s past reveals that times of crisis have pushed us towards the unhealthy model of political action we face today.

In his book The Conservative Affirmation, Kendall helpfully identifies the focus on the vote and the election as primarily characteristic of presidential politics.[2] The distance between the American Presidency and the local interests, priorities, and affinities that comprise a full-bodied politics prevents much more than simple egalitarianism in presidential campaigns. There are so many unique communities in America that no presidential hopeful can attempt to come to grips with them all. While the candidates may appeal to many groups, they cannot possibly understand all their peculiarities, hopes, and needs. Nor can they honestly promise to make a difference for these networks. Our national government has a hard enough time passing a budget without having to manage water quality in Flint, Michigan. It is very unlikely that any of the circles we hold dear—our friends at the local community center, our partners in the homeowners association, our coworkers, and even our family—can fundamentally shape the outcome of the presidential election. Most states are fairly certain to support one candidate or another, barring a massive political tide of events or attitudes that swamps local interests. Thus, isolated from the candidates and unanchored in his associations, the American citizen faces Election Day with nothing more than a single, isolated vote.

On some occasions the American Presidency has so decisively shaped the nation that the institution and the man have drawn all political attention into a new gravitational dynamic. When Lincoln’s election led an entire section of the nation to secede, American politics was presidentially defined. When Franklin Delano Roosevelt won four consecutive terms and passed an unprecedented spate of legislation, American politics was presidentially defined. As a result of this history, and the natural instinct to seek help from figures of authority when in distress, the difficult times in United States history have gradually nudged the American people toward an understanding of politics refracted through a presidential frame.

Thus, in 2018, American citizens find themselves loading their votes with unearned significance. As President Trump sought to make the midterm a referendum on his Presidency, voters may have again been distracted from their opportunity to shape the numerous Congressional and Senate races in terms of the values and communities that are relevant and impactful in those elections. Our answer to the question “Voting will never matter in the way that we want it to, but why are we asking so much of it in the first place?” leads us to a constructive place. Just as the crises resulting from breakdowns in America’s social capital and local wellbeing result in a prioritization of presidential politics, investing in the relationships and groups that build deep, flourishing community can bring us out of the isolation and alienation of an overly-emphasized presidential politics. In this light, Poyner’s call to meaningful activity in the pursuit of a healthy citizenship is even more valuable as American citizens seek to move away from polarization and towards healthy growth and lasting change.

Stanley Schwartz is a Fulbright postgraduate scholar studying Australian politics, history, and political ideology at Australian National University.

Notes:

[1] Willmoore Kendall, The Conservative Affirmation (Chicago: Henry Regnery Company, 1963), 33-34.

[2] Ibid., 41-47.