American elections. High drama. After Tuesday, America will move in one or other direction. Americans increasingly see themselves as belonging to tribes which are each others’ enemies. If that is their world, they better use their vote. The outcome will be decided by who does not vote.
Look elsewhere to see the importance of the mundane business of voting. Last week in Brazil, the sitting president was ousted by a vote of 50.9% for his opponent. It is not a cliché to say of that election that every vote counted. In Britain in 2016, by 52% of the vote in a referendum, it was decided to leave the European Union. Older voters voted to leave, younger ones to stay. But the young did not turn out in sufficient numbers to save the day. Had as many of the young as the old voted, Brexit would not have happened and young Britons would have held on to their future in an open Europe.
Voting is not in high regard. Many do not bother to participate. Young people in particular tell each other that it does not matter, it’s all the same. Political scientists recommend models of democracy in which voting is secondary, such as “participatory democracy” or “deliberative democracy.” Theorists of “rationality” rubbish the vote because it does not bring the voter any “utility.”
But voting is THE core instrument of democracy. It gives citizens not only voice but also power. It is by the vote that citizens can threaten their representatives to deselect them (as just happened in Brazil) and thereby hold their use of power under control.
In How Democracies Live, I issue a warning against the reinvention-of-democracy literature. “Since democracy as we know it has run into trouble, let’s just consign it to the scrap heap of history and start all over with something new and better.” That is to underestimate what we have achieved, such as in the forceful instrument of the vote, and also to “give succor to the autocrats in Beijing and Moscow who boast superiority for autocracy precisely because they are able to claim that western democracy has proved impotent.” My recommendation is that we resolve to salvage democracy, not to reinvent it.