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Apathetic Voters Send a Message: Talk About the 'Greater' Issues


A nation redefines itself when it elects a chief of state and its legislature.

The nature of the chosen leaders is one aspect of this self-delineation. The interest of the populace is another - and, by that measure, apathy may be one of the chief characteristics of American political society.

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Nineteen-ninety six is widely touted as the year of the uninterested voter. But turnout for US national elections has in fact been declining for decades, note political scholars.

Elections that show an increase in turnout, such as 1992 and 1994, may merely be the exceptions that prove the overall rule. "I think there is voter apathy," says Allan Lichtman, an election expert at American University here, "but it's been endemic in the system for 30 years."

The US isn't alone in its political disinterest. The same phenomenon has hit Canadian, German, and British politics - and for the same reason, experts say: Politicians are not discussing issues of principal concern to voters. In Japan, too, turnout in the Oct. 20 elections reached a new postwar low - 59.6 percent.

The last really big voter turnout in the United States was 64 percent of those eligible to cast ballots in the 1960 election of John F. Kennedy. Since that year the number of participating voters steadily declined - it was 61 percent in next election, 1964 - until leveling off in the neighborhood of 50 percent by the late 1970s.

It apparently takes an unusual set of circumstances - or emotions - to produce large votes. In 1992, the public was upset about a lagging economy. Nearly a fifth of it was intrigued by Ross Perot, the third-party candidate. Democrat Bill Clinton won in an unusually large turnout.

Again, in 1994, voters were exasperated over White House-congressional gridlock and gave the GOP control of Congress for the first time in four decades. Thomas Mann, a political scientist at Washington's Brookings Institution, says that since there is no great drama in the presidential election this year, the outlook is for a pre-1992 turnout of roughly 50 percent of eligible voters.

Curtis Gans, of the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate, warns that the disinclination to vote will increasingly turn American politics over to special interests - big business, big labor, advocates of gun control or abortion - at the expense of the general public interest.

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From its extensive polling, interviewing, and focus groups, the Harwood Group, a consulting firm, has gleaned possible solutions to the apathy problem.

"In 1996, Americans see their society heading in the wrong direction," says Richard Harwood, president of the firm that studies societal trends. "Their principal anxieties are about the economy. People say they're running faster and faster to stay in the same place, while the tax system seems to be based on the premise that the more you earn, the less you pay."

In Mr. Harwood's view of public perceptions, there's anxiety about families and values - not 'family values' - "a meaningless phrase in the view of many," he says." When both parents are working, who looks after the kids? Schools have become surrogate parents - which they believe is morally wrong - and television is the national baby-sitter which spews out hatred and violence."

All of this suggests that politics has a large role to play in curing America's malaise. In this election, say Harwood and other students of national attitudes, people want the candidates to get to the essence of the great issues instead of, in the opinion of many, talking in shallow, superficial terms.

"People want leaders who are running to lead, not just to win," Harwood says. "They want leaders to take risks, be candid with the voters, and express a set of core values that become the organizing principle for their vision and their policies."

Many say the media, especially television, also have a major contribution to make in restoring national optimism and faith in politics through more substantive coverage.

The American electorate might be described as a political Grand Canyon - with the institutions of government, the media, and other powerful groups forming one wall and vast numbers of anxious, doubting nonvoters forming the other.

But the 50 percent who do vote represent a bridge between this great divide - one that democracies around the world are struggling to reinforce.

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