Wednesday, October 13, 2004

Every election year there are great alarms in the media that not enough Americans vote. Supposedly this shows that there is something wrong at the core of our society.

In reality, societies where different groups are at each other’s throats often have high voter turnout, as each fears the worst if some other group gains political power.

Polarization is a high price for high voter turnout. But there are already efforts to scare old people that their Social Security is threatened in order to get out their vote. In fact, nobody in his right mind will touch their Social Security.

It is young people who are likelier to find their promised pensions are not there when they get old — unless they get some private pension in the meantime, with or without Social Security privatization.

Since 90 percent of the black vote goes to Democrats, it is especially important for Democrats to scare blacks, to get a large turnout. Charges of “racism” have been used for this purpose in the past but it is hard to make that stick against an administration with the first black secretary of state and the first black national security adviser in the White House.

The ploy this time is to claim Republicans are trying to “suppress” the black vote “again.” Sen. John Kerry has stooped to this, even though many of Florida’s voting problems in 2000 were in precincts controlled by Democratic election officials.

Other uses of polarization to increase voter turnout include Sen. John Edwards’ claim there are “two Americas” and the old familiar line about “tax cuts for the rich.”

Whatever the effectiveness of polarization in boosting turnout for Democrats, the larger question is: What is its effect on the country as a whole — and not just during election years? A country whose people see each other as enemies is in big trouble, often bigger trouble than its worst enemies can make.

People who have no partisan axes to grind may see a big voter turnout as a healthy form of self-expression. They want to see registration and voting made easier — and are often reluctant to see this makes voter fraud easier as well.

Voter fraud is not a small thing, especially when elections are very close, as in 2000 and as this one may be as well, judging by the polls. A more fundamental problem, however, is that voting is not just individual self-expression. It is choosing the people in whose hands this nation’s destiny will be placed.

That is an enormous responsibility at a time when Americans are in greater peril than even during the nuclear standoff of the Cold War. After all, the Soviet Union could be deterred by our nuclear weapons but suicide bombers cannot be deterred by anything. And it may be only a few years before they have nuclear weapons.

Choosing leaders in a time like this as a matter of self-expression may be the biggest, and perhaps last, self-indulgence in a self-indulgent age. We are not choosing politicians for style or rhetoric. We are deciding who has what it takes to confront our enemies and deter nations who would give aid and sanctuary to those enemies.

In this context, emphasizing a duty to vote is very misplaced. When the choice is so critical, emphasis is needed on making an informed decision, not a knee-jerk response to images and talk.

A citizen who cannot be bothered to learn the facts about the issues, not just media spin or party propaganda, is doing a disservice by voting. This is especially so in electing leaders to make life-and-death decisions whose consequences will affect this generation and generations to come.

Those who vote on the basis of what the government can do for them are especially shortsighted during a war against worldwide terror networks. What good would it do to get free prescription drugs forever if your “forever” is likely to be cut short by more attacks like those of September 11, 2001?

Thomas Sowell is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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