Tuesday, 23 October 2012

Democracy and the Zen of Voting

So you’re sick of the whole political process? A pity about you! The real question is – are you going to vote?

I sure as hell am, if only because I don’t want my long-interred grandfather hovering over my bed the night of November 6th.

“People died for your right to cast a vote,” he used to say. “If you hate them all equally, then vote for the most harmless.”

Not bad advice in the current political environment.

Amazingly only 57% of the voting age population exercised this sacred right in the 2008 presidential election but, at least, that trumped the 49% of 1996. The highest modern turnout was in 1960, not coincidentally the year of the first televised debate, when 63% chose between Jack Kennedy and Richard Nixon.

The greatest turnout was a staggering 81% in 1860 when Abraham Lincoln defeated Douglas, Breckenridge and Bell. But as my granny would say, “Sure where would you get another Lincoln?”

Nor does the future look so promising. Despite all the ballyhoo in 2008 when 18-24 year olds were supposed to have swamped the polls, only 49% of those eligible actually cast a vote, compared to 47% in 2004.

They did, however, vote in large numbers for Barack Obama which might not augur well for the president since he’s generating much less enthusiasm among Generation Y of late. Of course, if voting could be done by text or tweet Gov. Romney might as well stay home in San Diego and design a couple of new garage elevators.

On the face of it adapting social media tools to vote might seem like a crazy idea but democracy is ever evolving: the 1860 election was one of the first where ownership of property wasn’t an essential qualification for voting.

Women didn’t even get a vote until 1920; while there have been repeated attempts of late to deny the poor and uneducated the right to vote - all in the name of protection against voter fraud. If only people were lining up to vote twice – hardly the case since voting once seems to be beyond so many Americans.

Then again, democracy is about much more than just having a vote. To stay healthy and vibrant it should also provide an avenue for economic advancement. With the rich getting richer the great American middle class is being squeezed ever tighter. The figures say it all: 1% of the population now owns over 40% of the country’s wealth compared to the 33% they controlled in 1987.

Is there a solution? Sure, vote for candidates eager to change the tax code’s preferential treatment of income from investments – that would help level the economic playing field. Such candidates, however, tend to be hard to identify in election years when they’re busy shaking down well-heeled donors.

Oh my, democracy can be exhausting – especially in a sound-bite age where you can pop on your television and get all the news that’s fit to yell in tasty little morsels.

Voting against candidates who wish to scrap the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act would be a shot in the arm for both democracy and economic equilibrium. This pesky piece of legislation gives nightmares to those in the financial industry who almost drove the country into the ground four years ago – and will do so again unless stringently regulated.

The greatest threat to US economic democracy, however, may have already arrived in the form of High Frequency Trading (HFT). Upwards of 60% of all transactions on the US stock markets are now being made by unregulated HFT cowboys who trade stocks amongst themselves at warp speed and reap billions annually.

Nice work if you can get it, says you! Unfortunately, your 401(k), pension funds and savings are being buffeted by this ongoing gale-force financial onslaught. Can a crisis of major proportions be far away?

Democracy must grapple with such issues on a daily basis. That’s why it’s so important that you vote, especially for the odd visionary who might help the system adapt so that it can deal with the many obvious threats and, just as importantly, those we’ve yet to imagine.

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