Over the last 18 years, I’ve been privileged to live and work all over the world in democracy assistance: places like Tajikistan, Cambodia, Haiti, Afghanistan, and throughout the Middle East. And for all of their differences, no matter where I’ve been I’ve never met a single person who didn’t want a say in who governs them.
For most people experiencing the historical transition to democracy, an election is the first time that anyone has ever said to them, “What do you think?” For generations, people in these countries have only known the struggle for more: more choice and more voice. So right away people understand the importance of elections and they show up.
On the flipside, people in developed countries like our own suffer from the opposite problem. We have more, do more, produce more, consume more, and discuss more. You might think all this choice would lead to greater personal satisfaction, yet it’s actually the opposite: A 2013 survey in The Atlantic found that 6 in 10 Americans believe the country is more fragmented than it was during Vietnam, Watergate and The Great Depression. Part of this is because we no longer watch news to inform. We watch news to validate what we already believe, and the more divided we become, the more cynical we are for any hope of solutions, so we simply shake our heads in disbelief and tune out.
The result: Apathy. As polarized as we seem to be, the simple fact is people aren’t showing up at the polls the way they used to.
America’s declining voters:
- 1800s: The percentage of voting age population (VAP) who showed up to vote remained consistently between 70%-80% (Source: US Census data 1800s)
- 1950s: About half – 53% (Source: US Census data)
- 1980s: End of the Cold War, fall of the Berlin Wall, resurgence in domestic security, VAP turnout plummets to 44.7%. Rest of the world: 70%. (Source: US Census)
- 2008, arguably our country’s most historic election: 42.5% of voting age Americans stayed home. Fifty-eight countries had better voter participation that year than the United States.
- 2012 Presidential election year: a staggering 75 million eligible citizens did not vote. (Source: US Census 2012)
- 2014 Congressional elections: more divided than ever, voting hits an all-time low – 33.6%. The rest of the world still holding steady at over 60%. (Source: US Census 2014)
Why aren’t Americans showing up? Thirty-one percent said they were “too busy” or, “not interested.”
What does this tell us? That what we don’t do, matters. That what we don’t do leads to 175,000 pages of Federal Regulations. That not showing up leads to bloated government authority, runaway spending and political correctness. Despite our on-going appetite for freedom and debate, more than 60% of voting age Americans have forgotten that freedom isn’t free.
Even so, Americans are more united than our voting records indicate: ninety-four percent think a free-market economy is important to achieving the American Dream. Sixty-eight percent think that the free enterprise system does more to unite us than divide us. And a full ninety-six percent think it’s important that America is united in the future.
Whatever else you hear from politicians and media, I’ve been out there and I can tell you: real people in real villages who are new to democracy are watching us with great anticipation. The world really is looking to us still to carry the torch of freedom. That gives them hope. Because if we, the greatest experiment of them all, fail, how could they ever possibly succeed?