One day during an American presidential election, I received an urgent phone call from the prime minister of a tiny South Asian island. She had been following the campaign closely and was very agitated.
“I heard that less than half of the eligible voters were going to the polls,” she exclaimed. She wanted to know if there had been a military coup or threats of terrorist attacks or if women were being threatened if they went to the polls. I tried to dispel her fears about terrorist threats and answered that I hadn’t seen any tanks in the streets, but I couldn’t explain why so few Americans show up to vote. Although there were hundreds of polls conducted during the campaign, few of them, if any, had asked Americans why they weren’t voting. The media’s explanation was that the public generally saw one candidate as stiff and the other as dull and that alone was enough for voters to tune out of an election.
A friend of mine has a less charitable explanation. He worried that the American presidential elections have become a spectator sport that voters watch from a distance, akin to watching a winner emerge from the World Series. In his opinion, Americans love to see an exciting battle of champions, whether in politics or sports. However, if candidates don’t rise to the level of stardom, even party loyalists might show their disdain by boycotting the polls and turning to more engaging local. He pointed out that the real tragedy is that the political game is not a contest between people, but teams. For example, casting a vote for a conservative candidate is a vote for an entire phalanx of ultra-conservatives.
The prime minister was impatient with my attempts to explain.
“In our country,” she said, “everyone knows the candidates and their positions on issues, like abortion, foreign aid, and the environment. We watch American elections as much as our own because the outcome of these elections is critical to our future. If American policy on global warming doesn’t get on track, the sea level is going to rise, and half of our country will sink beneath the waves. Our maternal child healthcare services are improving with the help of American foreign aid, but if the anti-abortion conservatives win, our women will no longer have the right to reproductive choice. Don’t Americans understand that their president is a world leader too?”
I couldn’t calm her down. At this point, she made a daring proposal. She was going to write a letter to the new president offering to fill the gap in the American political structure. The note would say:
“Your people do not seem to be enthusiastic about voting for presidents. We can only surmise that the citizens who stay at home are happy to let strangers determine who will lead the country. As strangers go, we are actually the most qualified. Why? Because we have keenly studied the candidates’ qualifications, the issues, and weighed the consequences on the world. Therefore, we propose that if Americans won’t vote, we will. If you grant us this privilege, we promise to make informed decisions and take full responsibility to help bear the burden of democracy.”
I marveled at her imagination and her earnest desire to enhance the democratic process. At the end of the day, those of us in major democratic states need to be to remind the public that if we don’t choose their leaders, someone else will. I cast my vote to have my friend from the tiny South Asian island appear on primetime television and make her offer to join the electoral process. It’s a message worth hearing for all future elections everywhere.