Voting under attack as election approaches

COMMENT: The 2017 election is approaching. It can hardly be a coincidence that democracy and voting have come under attack on New Zealand’s two leading news sites: by Leonid Sirota (Stuff, 21 April) and Rachel Stewart (New Zealand Herald, 26 April). Both have a simple message: voting is a waste of time and will achieve little or nothing.

Sirota is a Canadian legal academic who arrived in New Zealand last year. Stewart was the winner of the ‘Opinion Writer of the Year’ award at the 2016 Canon Media Awards and has become prominent as a former provincial president at Federated Farmers and ex-farmer who is now very critical of New Zealand’s farming practices.

Sirota's pitch comes from a long tradition of conservative criticisms of democracy. He is particularly opposed to efforts to encourage people to vote who have little knowledge or even interest in politics. He asserts that “any one voter’s choice is virtually inconsequential, and even the results of change of Government are often not straightforward to identify”. The more people who vote, “sloganeering and simplistic appeals would be even more important than they already are”.

Now, these are questions of fact where, as a legal scholar, Sirota is simply out of his depth. Given turnout in the United States is among the lowest in the oldest democracies, on his assumptions we would expect to see a higher quality of campaign discourse than in a country with higher turnout, such as Denmark. This is a hypothesis almost certain to be refuted by no more than a cursory examination of the evidence from recent elections in those two countries. Meanwhile, an extensive literature in political science confirms changes of governments do matter. How much they matter and why varies according to circumstances too complex to go into here. A single vote is an individual act that may seem to have little impact but votes counted collectively can be extremely powerful.

Stewart’s pitch is from another direction, that of the disillusioned and anti-capitalist left who see neoliberalism as continuing to dominate New Zealand politics. She is emotional and opinionated, and contemptuous of people who continue to defend and support democracy. Indeed, her position is so extreme that at times one is led to consider the possibility the piece is a failed attempt at satire.

Stewart attacks “corporatocracy”, privatisation, homelessness and various other social ills. Politicians only look after “unelected corporate interests, and themselves”. She agrees with Sirota that voting is pointless but claims not to be encouraging abstention. She says she has always voted because she is “educated, white and privileged” and was socialised from birth to do it. But like Sirota, her message is that rationally people should not bother to participate in elections. In New Zealand, she thinks, we no longer live in a democracy.

No one lives in an ideal democracy. But there are differences between democracies and autocracies that Stewart, as a journalist, should understand.

It is not entirely clear how Stewart defines and identifies a democracy. On the surface, it seems she thinks her sort of democracy would bring about a society set up on the principles she prefers and in which all social and political problems could be solved. Of course, no set of political and economic institutions can deliver a perfect society defined by one person’s or group’s values. This is an illusion shared by both the extreme anti-capitalist left and the extreme neoliberal right.

Democracy is a work in progress and the battle to enhance and defend it is ongoing. Internationally, there have been recent democratic reversals. But it is not helpful if those who believe in democratic values simply give up electoral politics and encourage others to do so. No one lives in an ideal democracy. But there are differences between democracies and autocracies that Stewart, as a journalist, should understand.

In many countries, writing such a column could have put her life at risk. Some democracies are more democratic than others. Some so-called democracies do not rate very high, most notably the United States, which even centre-right magazine the Economist now classifies as only a partial democracy. By contrast, New Zealand rates among the highest scoring countries according to most indices of democracy. The political playing field may be far from level, even in New Zealand. But it is both extreme and insulting to assert that politicians in general are controlled by corporate interests and only out for themselves. Political alternatives that would shift policy toward Stewart’s apparent values do exist, even if they do not promise as radical and thoroughgoing change as Stewart apparently desires.

Sirota and Stewart ignore one of the most powerful lessons of political science: “If you don’t vote, you don’t count.” People who are interested in politics also tend to have clear ideas about their individual and collective interests that are unlikely to be the same as those who have less interest in politics. If people interested in politics are the only people who vote, their interests will prevail over others. Psychological research into cognitive bias tells us that knowing more than others does not necessarily make people better able to make choices for society in general than those who know less.

Stewart may continue to vote because she is white, educated and advantaged, and has been brought up to do so, but her article could encourage many others not to. If public policy in democratic societies is biased toward the rich, property owners and the old, all else being equal there is likely to be a simple reason: these are classes of people who tend to vote. The poor, those who own little or no property, and the young are less likely to do so.

This does not mean there is an automatic benefit for the left if turnout is higher among less advantaged groups. When people who are poor, lack assets or are young turn up to the polls, to be electorally successful all parties will have incentives that consider their interests.

Collective casting of votes by relatively powerless and disadvantaged groups can send signals to politicians, and they may respond. Evidence of what can happen can be found in the South of the United States in the 1960s when black Americans began voting in greater numbers and state governments began to pay more attention to the alleviation of poverty.

Democracy can work, but only if people work at it. Stewart’s final sentence calls on us to “pray”. Some might consider that helpful, but not in the absence of anything else.

Correction: A previous version incorrectly called Rachel Stewart an former employee of Federated Farmers when she was in fact a provincial president for four years ending in 2003.


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