Thursday, January 31, 2013

Harvesting Apathy

Governor Bobby Jindal (R-LA) gave one heck of a speech to the winter meeting of the Republican National Committee a week ago tonight. In fact, it was perhaps the best anti-statist speech given by an elected official in my recent memory. I encourage you to watch it if you haven't, or at least read Governor Jindal's remarks as prepared.

Just one of the great points he made spoke to building an electoral majority.
We must compete for every single vote. The 47 percent and the 53 percent. And any other combination of numbers that adds up to 100 percent. President Barack Obama and the Democrats can continue trying to divide America into groups of warring communities with competing interests, but we will have none of it. We are going after every vote as we work to unite all Americans.
He's absolutely right. Back in my electoral post-mortem (subheading "On Widening the Map") I noted the necessity of reaching voters, communities, and regions who are considered lost or not worth challenging for in the current political calculus. Libertarians and conservatives are doomed to defeat and extinction unless the map is widened.

There's another crop of citizens to harvest as well: the forty to sixty percent of Americans who don't politically engage or vote in biennial national elections. We've got to get past people's apathy and get them involved. And on that, I've got a wild premise. Could it be that American apathy is actually an asset in disguise?

I've done it, you've done it, we've all done it: bemoaned those who don't vote or don't pay attention to the ever encroaching government leviathan on all of our daily lives. To those of us who are concerned and do pay attention, the lack of participation and attention from millions of Americans can indeed cause despair, because either:
  1. The uninvolved mass actually supports the general trend to statism and just lets it go ahead.
  2. The uninvolved mass thinks their voice doesn't matter and doesn't bother because intervention is futile.
Both could be true, and yes, both are discouraging, but I think there's a third explanation that should be encouraging. What if Americans are disinclined to political engagement because they believe they shouldn't have to pay attention?

Ponder that for a minute. What is the main thrust of anti-statists such as myself? Simply that government should have as little influence and impact as possible on us and our liberty. That is the American system. The texts of the Declaration of Independence and our Constitution show that the United States was born on anti-statism. A government-centric society would never have been founded with these words:
That to secure these [unalienable] Rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just Powers from the Consent of the Governed, that whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these Ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or abolish it, and to institute a new Government, laying its Foundation on such Principles, and organizing its Powers in such Form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.
Nor would it have been limited in scope and reach with these words:
The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people. 
The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the states, are reserved to the states respectively, or to the people.
That's our culture; that's our society. Government is meant to be secondary to the people. I believe - and perhaps I'm just an optimist - that Americans intrinsically know it.

It's an explanation for why large numbers of people, perhaps even a majority, don't pay attention to electoral contests until the range of days between Labor Day and Election Day. Why bother to pay attention to political contests when they're not supposed to rule your daily existence?

It's an explanation for why millions of eligible Americans don't bother to vote too. Again, from a traditional American, anti-statist perspective, government just isn't supposed to have a huge impact on daily life, so it's not essential to use whatever influence one has on the electoral/governmental process to influence it. We're not supposed to be government-centric; we're not supposed to have our lives hinge on what happens in Washington. As Governor Jindal said:

America is not the federal government. In fact, America is not much about government at all. In America, government is one of those things you have to have, but you sure don’t want too much of it…kind of like your in-laws. This is of course the polar opposite of the political debate in our country today. At present we have one party that wants to be in charge of the federal government so they can expand it, and one party that wants to be in charge of the federal government so they can get it under control. It’s a terrible debate, it’s a debate fought entirely on our opponents’ terms.
It's easy to turn off a political discourse between two sides that are fighting for the same side of a societal coin. We are society; we are supposed to be government. The government isn't supposed to dominate us or our society.

The electoral participation statistics from other western democracies - many of which have average voter turnouts upwards of 85 percent - back this up. Those societies don't have the independent, no central authority tradition of the United States. When you're in a society in which there always has been a centralized, powerful government, you'll take whatever opportunity you get to have your voice as a subject heard in the hopes of becoming "the governed".

For most of our history in the United States we've been governed, not ruled. We're increasingly becoming subjects. The increasing push into our daily lives by statism hasn't been met with increased involvement of the people. How to wake people up?

I don't think we're ever going to win masses of voters over to an anti-statist position, nor will we get the 40 to 60 percent who don't participate involved, so long as the core message is couched in policy and numbers. Issues of budgets and spending, debts and deficits, are essential to deal with, but produce either instant boredom or (particularly in the case of spending) a transition to wondering "what's in it for me?" - and then taking and accepting what crumbs one is given as a net good.

A simpler, traditional American core message might work: we want to be left alone. Today, we've come full circle, having traded one tyrant thousands of miles away for thousands of tyrants in the form of politicians, bureaucrats, and regulators within miles.
[O]ur industry discouraged, our resources pillaged, worst of all, our very character stifled. We've spawned a new race here...rougher, simpler, more violent, more enterprising, less refined. We're a new nationality. We require a new nation.
-- Benjamin Franklin, as portrayed in 1776.
Franklin may not have described American society as it evolved from its European roots exactly in those words, but they're certainly in his style. Americans as a people are the key, not whatever government we form.

Government, and what we're going to do with it, can't be the lead if we ever expect conservatives and libertarians to present themselves as a legitimate alternative to the two-party statist rule we have now. Yes, both elected Republicans and Democrats have built the leviathan, and they're more concerned with being able to run it than reform it, or better still, smash it to pieces.

If we don't change the paradigm and focus on individual liberty and opportunity outside or away from government, we'll only ever appear as "more of the same". We won't be attractive to anyone, we won't convert anyone, and the 40-60 percent who aren't involved will remain on the sidelines. Bobby Jindal understands this:

We must focus on real people outside of Washington, not the lobbyists and government inside Washington. We must stop competing with Democrats for the job of “Government Manager,” and lay out ideas that can unleash the dynamic abilities of the American people. We need an equal opportunity society, one in which government does not see its job as picking winners and losers. Where do you go if you want special favors? Government. Where do you go if you want a tax break? Government. Where do you go if you want a handout? Government. This must stop. Our government must pursue a level playing field. At present, government is the un-leveler of the playing field.
We have to harvest people's apathy. Use the American assumption that government isn't supposed to matter. Tell people that if you don't want to have to care, get involved so in the end you won't have to least for a while.

If I'm right, and believing that government shouldn't be a daily presence in our lives is inherent to being an American, it should be an easy sell.

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