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Phil-osophically Speaking - November 6, 2009

Now that the election is nearly over, it seemed the only thing that the candidates of both parties agree on is that everyone should vote. This is the usual reflex in a democratic society and to say otherwise, I suppose, would be considered by both polite and impolite society narrow-minded and indecent. But is this, really, a wise attitude?

Panhandling for votes has become quite a sport and one wonders if making voting too easy for the general populace (Motor Voter Law) has not weakened the democratic franchise? Voters and non-voters who are uninterested in voting should be left in peace and not made to feel they are committing a mortal sin by not going to the polls.

Americans must not forget that the priceless heritage of democracy was won in fields of bloodshed and after centuries of trial and error. The moral seriousness of elections should not be taken lightly; for casting ballots can be fraught with infinite consequences not only for us living, but also for generations unborn.

The history of the American electoral process is one of inclusion, which has, over time, vastly enlarged the electorate. Once, only white male property owners, at least 21 years of age, could vote. Today, all citizens, at least 18 years of age, are eligible to vote - an historical trajectory that instills, I trust, confidence in the continuing American experiment. In today’s political culture, however, we too often try to fill voting booths as if they were telephone booths in some Guinness Book of Records contest.

As long as one has a pulse (and sometimes even that is considered too stringent a requirement), and irrespective of any other consideration, including even a vague familiarity with the issues, voters are compelled to march to the polls. I find this troubling, inasmuch as there is something unseemly about compelling people with little, if any understanding of the issues to leave their homes to fulfill some Platonic, democratic ideal as if the act of voting itself was a sacramental duty. The one thing you can count on is that voters who are not guided by issues are usually voting by class, or race, or some other misguided prejudice that hardly makes for an enlightened democracy.

In the 1982 New York Gubernatorial election, a relative inquired whether I was voting for Mario Cuomo or Lewis Lehrman. “Lehrman,” I said unhesitatingly. “Aren’t you,” she responded with some astonishment, “voting for your own kind?” The implication was that my vote should be cast on nothing more serious than the coincidence of Mr. Cuomo’s name and mine ending in vowels. I replied that “my own kind” were those candidates whose beliefs I shared. This, of course, invited only more astonishment.

When the United States Constitution was ratified in 1788, it shone like a beacon in a sea of unrelenting darkness. Nine tenths of Europe and Asia were poor and under the yoke of oppression. Prussia was militant, divided and mostly despotic; Russia, still primitive, was afflicted by caste and absolutism; Austria still felt the lash of medieval feudalism and was weighed down by an ancient aristocracy and clericalism; France was blindly rushing into the killing fields of regicide, anarchy and military dictatorship that would have staggering consequences for the world.

England, the best of the lot, was surfeited with hereditary inequality with its King, George III, ignominiously sinking into madness. If the founders looked backward to the snows of yesteryear, they would not have found much encouragement either. Even the Athenians, who blazed the early trails of democracy, voted twice against their democratic constitution during the Peloponnesian War. Neither Plato nor Aristotle, the two luminaries of the ancient world, favored Periclean democracy over the political stability of Spartan military dictatorship.

During the debates at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, the dismal legacy of government cast a pall over the proceedings. Prospects for a democratic republic were bleak; fear of the uneducated masses or “rule of the mob” had, for some delegates, thickened into genuine apprehensiveness. Steeped in history, the Founders judiciously checked popular control by establishing a representative rather than a direct democracy, a large Republic instead of a small one to counteract the destructive role of faction and strongly encouraged a free press and educated citizenry.

The last is of particular and lasting importance. It was, Thomas Jefferson argued, only in the full light of learning that superstition could be dispelled and the human mind liberated for self-government.

The idea, then, of public education presupposing democratic institutions was not only desirable but also necessary. This is not to say that an educated elite, a professorial aristocracy dictating the national agenda, should constitute the electorate. I, for one, fully endorse the late William F. Buckley Jr’s delicious sneer that he would rather be governed by the first 200 names in the telephone directory than the faculty of Harvard University.

Being learned and being wise are not synonymous. However, that should not be an inducement to encourage thoughtlessness just for the sake of voting, which is exactly what happens when voting becomes all but compulsory. Political parties cannot play this vetting role since it runs athwart their objective of accumulating as many votes as possible. But the political culture can, and should, (The League of Women Voters for example) by insisting that an informed voter is as important as an informed investor - otherwise one is not thinking, only gambling.  

Nearly a half-century ago, John F. Kennedy said that too many people enjoy the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought. It was a diagnosis of a mindset that has grown more dangerously pronounced. I thought of this when a civic-minded person recently wrote that parents should take their children with them when they vote to accrue not only a respect for the democratic process, but as a means of eventually encouraging them to vote.

This is all good and well; but in showing them how to vote let us not neglect to teach them how to think first.