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Why Americans Don’t Vote, Part 2

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Most people don’t realize that just under half of the population actually votes — a figure that hasn’t changed much in 80 years. In the last election, this meant that Bill Clinton was elected by just 27% of the population. Sociologist Frances Fox Piven says that the government wants it this way.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: You’re listening to Pacifica Radio’s Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, here with Frances Fox Piven for Part 2 of our interview on Why Americans Still Don’t Vote. It’s a famous book that has been updated, written by Frances Fox Piven and Richard Cloward. Frances Fox Piven is a professor of political science and sociology at the City University of New York. This past weekend, there was a large series of seminars. Ralph Nader also gave a major address, talking about the issues of our day. But this question of why people don’t vote, that for the last 80 years, as you told us yesterday, Professor Piven — for the last 80 years, the number has been at less than half. I think 49% of the people came out and voted in the Clinton reelection. He was reelected by something like 27% of the vote.

FRANCES FOX PIVEN: That’s right. The one qualification is that turnout did rise during the New Deal, although it did not rise to the levels it would have risen if we didn’t still have legal and procedural obstructions to voting. Nevertheless, during the New Deal, the rise of the movement of the unemployed, the movement of old people demanding pensions, and especially the labor movement, these movements, in a sense, forced the reigning Democratic Party to develop a program which had urgency to people, which they understood given the straits that they found themselves in and which they saw as very, very important. And under those conditions, turnout rose. It rose even though we still had difficult voter registration procedures, even though we still had literacy tests and poll taxes.

The situation we’re in right now is that many of these legal and procedural obstructions have been toppled, thanks to the efforts of the civil rights movement and good government groups, but the parties have retreated into their traditional politics of keeping voting down. And they do this — you know, both parties are, in a sense, rainy day Republicans. Rainy day Republicans had to do with Republicans always preferring an election in which fewer people voted because then they were more likely to win. But both parties don’t — prefer lower turnout. It makes the electorate easier to manage. And it also means that the groups who have issues that will make raising money and kowtowing to the big fundraisers — the groups that will raise those issues that give the party trouble less likely to turn out and put pressure on the party.

AMY GOODMAN: Tonight is the second debate of the presidential candidates Al Gore and George W. Bush, third parties excluded. It’s happening in Winston-Salem. What role do debates play?

FRANCES FOX PIVEN: Well, debates could play a very invigorating role. Debates could be a way of mobilizing the electorate. You can think about the way in which the debates should work. We should have an array of candidates, not just the two major parties, an array of candidates trying to name the issues that people care about, that reflect their grievances, that reflect their aspirations for a better life and a better society.

But, in fact, the debates don’t work that way. The debates are controlled by a commission which reflects only the two major parties, and the commission invents rules which keep any minor-party representatives any — who would bring different kinds of issues into the dialogue, the commission keeps them out. In fact, the entire electoral apparatus in the United States — and it’s a very complicated and massive apparatus — the entire apparatus that runs elections is run by the major parties. It’s run by the Democrats and the Republicans. And although on some issues they disagree, on one issue they always agree. And that is keep turnout down. Don’t let new, obstreperous groups into the electorate. Don’t raise the issues that will make trouble for the big funders who fund both parties.

AMY GOODMAN: And yet, Frances Fox Piven, why then you have people like Jesse Jackson, who’s paid millions by the Democratic Party to run these “Get Out the Vote” campaigns?

FRANCES FOX PIVEN: Well, I know a lot about “Get Out the Vote” campaigns, actually, because for about 15 years I worked together with an organization called Human SERVE and with other organizations to try to make voter registration available in a wide variety of social — voluntary and public agencies, and also to do voter registration in these agencies. So, we, all of us, watch voter registration efforts very, very closely, something I had previously completely ignored because it seemed so dull and so boring. But it isn’t dull and boring at all. It’s intensely political.

Most of the money that the major parties spend on “Get Out the Vote” efforts, and which they brag about spending on “Get Out the Vote” efforts, go out in patronage. Most of that money is spent in patronage to local groups, local community groups often, whether or not they do any “Get Out the Vote” work, and most of the time they don’t do “Get Out the Vote” work. When the parties do “Get Out the Vote” — actually do some “Get Out the Vote” work, they only call, poll the voters that they have previously assured themselves would vote for them. So, they’re not doing a general mobilization at all. They’re doing very targeted, very specific polling of voters. And mostly they’re just eating the money.

AMY GOODMAN: And where does this money come from?

FRANCES FOX PIVEN: This money comes from — ultimately, it comes from the fat cat contributors to the major parties and to the campaign organizations. The whole — I mean, elections are the pivotal moment in a democracy, and they should be the moment when a wide range of alternatives, alternative directions for the country, is laid before the public, argued about, discussed, when people are enthused by those possibilities. Instead, our elections are drowned in money. They are managed by pollsters and by ad executives. That’s why the debates are so — part of the reason why the debates are so dull. Part of the reason is that a Nader or Buchanan is kept out. But part of the reason is that both candidates are fashioning themselves after the public relations experts, and they mouth promises that no one believes anymore. People are profoundly cynical about whether elections work for them.

AMY GOODMAN: Frances Fox Piven, what is new since you first wrote your book, Why American’s Don’t Vote?

FRANCES FOX PIVEN: What is new? I think what is new is that the erosion, corrosion, corruption of our democracy has worsened. I think that’s what’s new. There’s more money in the campaigns. There are more loopholes that are invented and used by the parties, the campaign organizations and their big money contributors.

AMY GOODMAN: Is it accurate to say that the more money that’s poured in, the fewer people come out and vote? Or does it just remain the same?

FRANCES FOX PIVEN: Well, it’s roughly accurate. The more money that is poured in, the more cynical people become about the election process. And that cynicism, which is often blamed on the voters — you hear that all the time. People say, “Oh, they don’t understand that voting is a privilege of citizenship,” or they’re too lazy, or they’re too this, or they’re too that. I think that is completely unfair. The people in the United States voted in the 19th century. People vote in other democracies. Americans are voting less and less, because they have become so discouraged with the prospects of exerting democratic influence on the candidates and the parties. And there are very good reasons that they are so discouraged. They understand corporate influence. They understand that so much of what matters in legislation and regulation, in policymaking, occurs, in a sense, below the radar screen of public attention or media attention, that somebody has stolen their government, in effect.

AMY GOODMAN: Is the map the same across this country, or are there some states where there are very high — there’s very high voter turnout and others where it’s very low?

FRANCES FOX PIVEN: Everywhere, voter turnout is declining. It’s somewhat higher in states that have a populist tradition — the Dakotas, Minnesota, for example — but it is falling everywhere. And this despite the fact that so many of the procedural obstacles have been overcome.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Frances Fox Piven, what do you think needs to be done?

FRANCES FOX PIVEN: I think we need — well, let me first that in the American past, in our history, voter turnout has typically risen when social movements, protest movements have emerged that had the courage, the audacity to raise the issues that politicians want to ignore, partly because their backers don’t like those issues. So, for example, at the end of the 19th century, when the country was stirred by the populist movement, by a movement of radical farmers, voter turnout rose. And it rose even from a relatively high base, because, as I said earlier, voter turnout was pretty high in the 19th century. Voter turnout rose again in the 1930s. And what stirred people to come and vote was the hope generated and the issues raised by the protest movements of the 1930s. This was true again in the South during the civil rights movement. Voter turnout among African Americans in the South rose despite voter registration barriers, despite poll taxes. And it rose because people’s aspirations were excited by the fact of a protest movement and the boldness of that movement and by the piercing issues that were raised by that movement.

I don’t place any confidence in the ability of the major parties to reform themselves. They are — what are they, after all? They’re not organizations oriented to mobilizing voters and to responding to voters. They’re cabals of interest groups and campaign organizations. I think that what we need, what has worked in the past and what I believe will work in the future to stir Americans and to force the political parties to at least modestly reform themselves, would be the rise of a series of new protest movements.

AMY GOODMAN: And so, what do you say to those who, when talking about the whole Gore-Bush contest, say that if you would vote for Gore, but you have serious reservations, it’s a mistake to vote for a third-party candidate like Nader, because it will be — you know, even if you have reservations about Gore, at least you’ll be getting Gore?

FRANCES FOX PIVEN: Well, certainly, in most of the states, and especially in New York, that argument makes no sense, because Gore is substantially ahead. And in that sense, a vote for Gore is a wasted vote, because he’s going to win New York state. And he’s going to win California, for example.

AMY GOODMAN: Most people think that the election is won on popular votes. I mean, it’s not just New York, well, he’s got it, so you don’t have to worry.

FRANCES FOX PIVEN: Well, that’s wrong, right. The election, we have a system in the United States where popular — the popular vote in a given state determines where all of the Electoral College votes go, to which party all of the Electoral College votes go. So, if Gore wins by, as I think he will, by over 60% in New York state, all of New York state’s Electoral College votes will go for Gore. Similarly, if he wins by a margin of eight, nine, 10 points in California, as he surely will, all of California’s votes will go for Gore.

I don’t agree that this is not the time to vote for a third-party candidate who raises who raises crucial issues about corporate domination of American life. To the contrary, I think this is exactly the time when most of us can afford to vote for a third-party candidate. A third-party candidate that pulls some votes, say, 5% — that’s what Nader is aiming for — is a threat to the major parties and does force them to accommodate themselves a little bit. It is quite possible that Gore’s tilt toward populist rhetoric in his acceptance speech, for example, was influenced by the rise of the Nader challenge. And I think we ought to make that challenge stronger.

AMY GOODMAN: Frances Fox Piven, in other countries, do you see hope? Do you see examples that the United States should follow?

FRANCES FOX PIVEN: Well, in fact, what’s happening in other countries is that they are becoming a little bit more like the United States. And one of the reasons for this is the complex domestic changes associated with globalization, which increase business influence in all rich democratic countries. One way this is expressed is the rise of a very powerful ideology, a neoliberal ideology, which, in a sense, denigrates the possibility of democracy. Because what does this ideology say? It says that markets — in an international economy, market decision makers must prevail, that if they don’t get their way, then investors will flee, that goods from low-wage countries will flood across our borders. We have no choice but to knuckle under to whatever demands that business makes. Now, that ideology is reminiscent of 19th century laissez-faire, but in a sense it’s even more ominous now, because it seems to describe a global phenomenon.

The argument is not true. It is not true that American investors will go to low-wage countries. American investors are going to Western Europe, where workers are paid more and where public services are better. But the argument is nevertheless powerful, and it has a suffocating effect on democratic aspirations, because it argues to people that if you ask your government to strengthen or inaugurate the policies that you really care about, to do something about excessive concentrations of wealth, to do something about the deterioration of public services, to do something about the corrosion of public space, if you ask government to do something about the conditions that affect your daily life, you will, in effect, be worsening the economic situation.

AMY GOODMAN: Frances Fox Piven, I want to thank you for being with us. Her book, with Richard Cloward, is Why Americans Still Don’t Vote: And Why Politicians Want It That Way. It’s published by Beacon Books in Boston.

And that does it for today’s show, Democracy Now! produced by Gillian Aldrich and Sidrack Franklin. Special thanks to Deepa Fernandes. Matthew Finch is our engineer; our technical director, Errol Maitland. From the studios of WBAI in New York, I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González, for another edition of Pacifica Radio’s Democracy Now!

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