In the Bush-Kerry election of 2004, which was supposed to be one of the most heated and divisive elections in recent history, only 55% of eligible voters cared enough to go to the polls, and this was up from 51% in 2000, where W's election arguable made some kind of a big difference on the country and the world.
I would argue that this points to an extremely urgent problem with our country, despite its receiving very little attention from any of us. In a country where our leaders stress teh importance of democracy and a government that is accountable to its people, it should be unacceptable to us that only half of eligible voters chose to participate in this process.
What does it mean that only half of our country cares enough to participate in chosing our government's leader? Well, first off, it is debatable how much of this is a "choice," since some eligible voters may be deterred from voting for socioeconomic reasons, but that is a more complicated issue that I will steer clear of in order to focus on those eligible voters who could easily vote and choose not to.
Those that chose not to vote presumably don't care who wins. Now, we can't say for sure that they don't care who is in charge of our government, but rather that they don't care who is in charge if their only options are the Democratic and Republican nominees (ie the choice between W versus Kerry or Gore).
This indifference between Dem & Repub nominees suggests that people don't see the candidates that our two parties produce each year as all that different. This seems accurate. In hindsight, it looks like a President Gore would have done things much differently than W, but during the 2000 campaign both campaigned as moderates, the Saturday Night Live skit where both candidates answered "agree" to everything the other said during the debates comes to mind. Bush-Kerry was essentailly the same - after giving some attention to Dean, the Democratic party scrapped him for Kerry-Edwards, who both campaigned (during the primaries) as in favor of the Iraq war.
Why did the Democrats choose John Kerry? Well experience was important, but grey-haired politicians are a dime a dozen, so what else was decisive? I would say that Kerry got the nomination because he was dubbed, by his campaign and by the American media as the most "electable" of the Democratic candidates.
Say it with me: e-lect-a-ble. I heard the word "electable" being tossed around at the start of the primary "season" in 2003, while I was an undergrad. Dean was the frontrunner at the time, and I remember asking one of my political science professors what he thought about the buzz about Kerry being more electable than Dean. He said: "electable is as electable does," which, apart from making us think of Forrest Gump, means that you can't judge someone's electability until after the election, and any branding of someone as "electable" before the election is a speculative statement, but nonetheless a good campaign strategy if the branding is convincing to the voters.
Now the big question is this: since Kerry didn't turn out to be so "electable" in the general election, how did the Kerry campaign and the national media convince everyone what he was?
My answer is that there are two kinds of "electable" when we are speaking of candidates. In our national discourse (candidates and the media), "electable" means someone who appeals to the other party. A moderate in the sense of a Democrat that appeals to Republicans, or a Republican who appeals to Democrats. Dean was too Democratic and not Republican enough to get elected, the Democrats decided, but Kerry was just republican enough that enough voters would vote to get him elected. The result, of course, is that two candidates emerge who are not so different from one another (again I am talking about what we know about them pre-election), as we have seen in 2000 and 2004, IE two candidates who embrace a mix of Dem & Repub policies, to appeal to the 50% of the country who votes for either a Dem or a Repub in each election.
This seems like a sensible strategy but I would argue that it is extremely unproductive for our country, because it completely ignores the other 50% of the country who doesn't see any difference in the candidates and thus doesn't care enough to vote. We have defined "electable" as "electable by the 50% of the country that votes," and we have completely disregarded the other 50% who may not be so interested in a candidate who embraces a mix of Dem & Repub policies.
Now, should we care about the fact that 50% of Americans are indifferent? Well, maybe. If we believe that half the country is indifferent because the like everything about the Dem & Repub nominees, so either way they are happy (ie: Bush and Gore or Bush and Kerry are both so great, how can you choose), then we shouldn't have a big problem with this. However, if half of the country has decided that they don't like either candidate, then we have a big problem. I would argue that the state of our politics reflects the latter: half of the country is so disappointed with the Dem & Repub nominees that they choose not to vote for either: because they don't believe that either candidate adequately represents their interests and cares about the issues that they care about.
So if this is accurate, and I do not see why it shouldn't be, 50% of Americans feel that the nominees put fourth each election cycle don't represent or care about the things that they care about, so they don't vote. This in itself should be disturbing. However, I would argue that the problem is actually much worse than it looks, because I would bet that many people in the 50% of eligible voters that DO vote think of it as choosing "the lesser of two evils," so many voters are actually voting for candidates that they don't even like so much themselves.
The result? The two parties put fourth candidates that most of the country is not crazy about, and one of these candidates gets to be in charge of our government. This seems like a big problem to me.
So how do we solve the problem? My opinion is as follows.
The first step is redefining how we think of "electable," in fact we urgently need to do this. Again, we can see the 2008 race starting to look like 2004: right now, Obama is just like Dean and Edwards in 2004 - young, fresh, inspirational, and doesn't stick to the same-old, unambitious, "play it safe" political rhetoric. Now the paradox is that so many people like this guy and so few are excited about the other candidates, yet everyone is questioning whether the guy is "electable," and OF COURSE, what they mean by "electable," is: WILL REPUBLICANS VOTE FOR HIM? The same exact thing is going on with Hillary. Now this is totally bogus, because only about 25% of eligible voters are Republicans - why should the Democrats decide their nominee for President based so heavily on what 25% of the country thinks? Nevermind why this is even an issue because I don't want to digress, my point is that we should not just be asking whether Republicans will vote for Obama or Hillary, but we should be asking whether the 50% of the country who continually chooses not to vote for anyone, we should be asking whether they would come to the polls for someone like Obama or Hillary.
Now I am not advocating Obama or Hillary (although I would vote for either if they were the nominee), all I am saying is that we need to redifine our concept of "electable," since our present concept is inaccurate, and it is this inaccurate idea that is being used to discredit not just Obama and Hillary, but perhaps a great majority of politicians in general (a great majority if you see them as potentially appealing to 75% of the vote).
So if we want to get more eligible voters to the polls, and in turn, if we want to send candidates to the general election and in turn elect presidents that truly represent the issues that majority of our democracy cares about, let's rethink our currently narrow concept of who is "electable" and broaden it to someone that is in touch with the interests of as much of our country as possible.