Dana Nelson


On her book Bad for Democracy: How the Presidency Undermines the Power of the People

Cover Interview of December 22, 2008


The presidency is not working for people’s sense of democratic involvement, agency, or fair play.  But many point out how few people currently vote, asking:  how can you appeal to citizens to roll up their sleeves and do the hard work of revitalizing democracy when they can’t even be bothered to drive to the poll once every four years?  I know the media and many political scientists are fond of pointing to low voter turnout as evidence that most citizens aren’t worthy of the powers of self-rule. But I think that single number of non-voters conceals a lot of frustrated political engagement.  While I don’t dispute that the roll of non-voters contains people who simply do not care about becoming involved in their political system—no matter what it is—I think there are lots of reasons people don’t vote.  Sometimes they don’t vote precisely because they are so politically passionate, and disgusted by the way they can’t find anything close to their preferences represented in the political spectrum.  Some people don’t vote because they are in a political minority and their vote never “wins”—if you never see your interests represented after an election, it’s easy to just give up on voting, even though you still care about politics.  I think if we worked to revitalize our formal political system and our political culture so that they did a better job at incentivizing more people to stay involved with the democratic “game”—for instance, we could use proportional representation for multi-body institutions like city councils, school boards, Congress, and preferential voting schemes for single-body offices like mayor, governor and president—people would feel that their vote wasn’t being wasted, they would see their views gaining some airtime in political bodies, and they might be more interested to try participating again.

© 2008 Dana Nelson