Many pundits are complaining at the moment that American citizens do not vote. What most of them seem to mean, though, is that members of certain “minority” groups (the word includes women, who happen to outnumber non-women) who would be expected on a demographic basis to support Democrats do not vote with the result that Republicans win elections in districts where Democrats ought to outnumber them. It is probably true that older people tend to be more conservative (we have seen more of life and more readily recognize that what is called progress is often undesirable) and also tend to perceive voting as more important so make the time to do it. Polls tend to suggest that a greater percentage of Republicans (and independent conservatives) vote than Democrats (and independent liberals). The result, we are told is that the majority of Americans (that is, those who do not vote) are underrepresented in government.
This seems an oddly timed complaint, in some ways. After all, the current President of the United States is a Democrat, accused by some conservatives of being a Socialist and certainly a progressive in many of his policies. Further, when he took office his party held both the Senate and the House of Representatives–and that both houses are now held by conservatives is at least as likely to be because the majority of Americans opposed the directions in which the country was headed as to be because those who were satisfied with it did not bother to vote. Yet it has long been true that if every registered voter who did not vote in a Presidential election had instead voted for Mickey Mouse, the Disney icon would be the next President of the United States. For whatever reason, the majority of Americans do not vote. Sometimes it is apathy, that they see no difference between the candidates; sometimes it is disillusionment, that they do not believe their vote matters; sometimes it is simply disorganization, that it is inconvenient to take the time and go to the place to vote. Apparently they either are not sufficiently dissatisfied with the outcomes of elections or not sufficiently concerned about them to motivate them to change anything.
The specific quesiton, though, is whether these people are therefore unequally represented, whether the fact that they do not vote means the officials actually elected to not represent them. I do not know whether that is true, but I am inclined to think that the proof adduced for this is dubious. Our attention is called to Ferguson, Missouri, where in a recent election the overwhelmingly black population did not come to the polls in droves to express their outrage over their treatment by white government leading to the shooting of black (and, let’s face it, criminal) Michael Brown to replace the five (of six) white council members with blacks. They only replaced two of these, making the government racially equal, not representative of the racial mix of the population. If the population is largely black, we are told, the government ought also to be largely black; any other outcome is evidence of a discriminatory result, whatever the cause.
The article quotes Zoltan L. Hajnal, author of America’s Uneven Democracy, who writing in the Washington Post reportedly said:
“If we could increase local turnout, we might eliminate almost one quarter of the underrepresentation of Latinos and Asian Americans on city councils across the country,
What is wrong with this thinking?
The end of racial prejudice cannot be identified by fulfilled quotas, or proportionate representation of the type suggested. That viewpoint is itself racially biased. The proof that racial discrimination is over will be that no one pays any attention to the racial or ethnic background of those government officials, or of anyone else. The fact that a black man was elected President of the United States was certainly a step in the right direction, but it would only have been proof that discrimination had ended if no one had noticed that it had happened. On top of that, it is irrational to think that blacks can only be adequately represented by blacks, or Latinos by Latinos, or Asians by Asians, as much as to think that whites can only be represented by whites, Christians by Christians, Catholics by Catholics, or Jews by Jews–or for that matter, that Irish Americans, Italian Americans, Polish Americans, and the wealth of ethnically diverse Europeans in America can only be adequately represented by persons of their same ethnic background. What matters, what should matter to voters, is whether specific individuals have the same ethic, the same viewpoint, the same values, as those they represent, and whether they have the skills and abilities to do the job well. To elect a candidate because he is black or she is a woman is as foolish as to oppose such a candidate for that reason.
So what the pundits are missing in all this is that apparently the predominantly black voters in Ferguson either believed that the white men they sent to serve on the council were the best available for the job, or that they were at least as good as anyone else available. That two black men and a black woman now serve on that council is a positive sign only to the degree that we perceive that as evidence that well-qualified persons from these groups were able to present themselves to the public and win election. Yet if the best person for the job happens to be a white male, he ought not be excluded on that basis any more than if she is a Filipino lesbian. One or the other might not represent the views of individual voters, but we ought not second-guess election results based on whether the people who win them are from the right demographic.