Is today's midterm election a referendum on (choose one) (a) President Bill Clinton, (b) Speaker Newt Gingrich, (c) Social Security, (d) local issues?
The answer is, none of the above. More than anything else, the election is a referendum on the American political system itself. And, election after election, the system flunks. But the big flunk does not make big news. The big story, virtually the only story of this election, is a nonstory: At the core of American politics is a yawning, black sinkhole where Democrats' hopes melt down and most of the electorate vanishes. For the key to this election, as to most American elections, is the electorate that doesn't turn up. It is disproportionately -- no surprise -- less affluent, less educated, less white, less Republican than the private club of regular voters. To say its members are alienated is to say the obvious. The no-shows explain why a country with a largely Democratic belief system gives rise to an electorate that votes Republican.
There is some good news. The American public is gamely trying to declare independence from the Beltway blowhards and petty inquisitors who have been trying to stampede them into deposing the president. The most unexpected good news about the slow-motion coup d'itat the Republicans have mounted since January -- courtesy of Kenneth Starr, Linda Tripp, Lucianne Goldberg, Newsweek, Matt Drudge and a supporting cast of thousands -- is that the public hasn't bought it. Poll after poll, for more than nine months, reveals a public convinced that Clinton lied, that Starr overreached, that the media ran amok and that impeachment would be wrong. The problem is that this vast public, whispering its tastes and distastes to the pollsters, muttering in the streets, is not what elects the American government. The electorate is a sector, a fraction. And not a representative one.
If registered voters beamed their likes and dislikes directly into a supercomputer, they would elect a Democratic Congress. So the polls say, and rather consistently. Here are some big, fat numbers to hold in your mind: According to a New York Times poll Oct. 26-28, registered voters prefer Democratic over Republican candidates for the House by a margin of 48 percent to 38 percent. It will take more numbers to drive the point home, so let me start by repeating. Forty-eight to 38 percent. If registered voters could cast their ballots simply by wishing -- leaving aside the ones who would sit it out even if they could vote with an act of mental concentration -- 56 percent of those who were prepared to choose when polled by the Times would choose Democrats over Republicans. A Congress elected in that way would consist of 243 Democrats and 192 Republicans.
But we haven't yet figured out how to tally votes via Spockian mind meld. For a host of reasons, turnout falls far short of 100 percent of registered voters. Unlike other democracies, we vote on a work day, not a weekend. No one gets time off to vote. We consider politics dirty, distracting, trivial, juvenile. So turnout has been falling throughout the 20th century, with the falloff interrupted only by upticks in the 1930s, jolted by the Depression and the New Deal, and in the 1960s -- jolted by hopes for the Kennedy and Johnson years, by the civil rights movement, the Vietnam war and the antiwar movement. The falloff resumed after the '60s and goes on. During presidential elections, we're lucky to get 50 percent turnout. And during off-year elections, without a superhero or supervillain to draw folks to the booths, forget 50 percent. In 1994, it was 39 percent.
Suppose that turnout this year matches the turnout of 1994. Then, according to the Times poll of Oct. 26-28, Republicans are preferred by 48 percent and Democrats by 43 percent. (The others are presumably undecided.) In the event voters turn out in those proportions, the House will number 229 Republicans to 206 Democrats.
Or suppose the turnout is at the low end of recent off-year elections -- 31 percent as opposed to the 39 percent of 1994. According to the Times' calculations, the Republican House margin would soar to 241-194 -- almost as great a Republican margin as the Democrats would achieve via the Spockian mind-meld vote.
On the other hand, even if Americans vote at a high rate -- if, say, a grand 47 percent of the voting-age population rouse themselves -- they'll still go for Republicans, albeit by a slender margin of 220 to 215 seats. Right now only one question is absorbing the pundits, spinners, counterspinners, advisers and consultants -- the whole electoral industry -- how Republican?
One reason people don't vote is that they're not registered -- that's 19 percent of the voting-age population, including convicted criminals in many states, who are disproportionately African-American, and many of the ill and the elderly. Getting an absentee ballot in many states is no picnic. (Before the September primary, in New York City, it took me two phone calls and a lot of voice-mail patience to get an application for an absentee ballot. After I mailed it, the actual ballot arrived too late. Call me a primary nonvoter.) Even after a Democratic Congress passed the motor-voter bill in 1993 and President Clinton signed it (after several Bush vetoes), many states dragged their feet setting up procedures to get the paperwork done. Making voting too easy might not be a good career move for many politicians.
But the nonregistered are only a minority of the nonvoters. Most nonvoters have gone to the trouble of registering and don't want to go to any more. Some are, they say, "not interested." Some think not voting is a positive act, a declaration of independence. They're voting with their feet -- voting against politics. Politics is for suckers, they believe. Politics has victimized them, left them behind, so they are taking revenge. There are more of these affirmative nonvoters every year, who think not voting is a righteous act, a sort of civil disobedience. Don't vote, goes the bumper sticker, it only encourages them. By not voting, this growing majority ensures that politics will be dominated by the politicians they despise. A luxurious attitude, befitting a sort of aristocracy of dropouts.
Enter the Republicans with their on-again, off-again attack ads that lots of people (not only high-minded do-gooders) hate with a passion. Why, since the public so fiercely disapproves of these accusations, do the Republicans still love to point fingers in living color? Why, after denying that they would do so, did the Republicans bring out their poison darts in the closing days of the campaign? In part, precisely because so-called negative ads are offensive, and being offensive is the Republicans' best defense. Ugly politics keep people away from the ballot box. The uglier the campaign, the more people decide that all politics are the work of the devil, and they want to stand clear of them. The more vicious the Republicans are, the more likely to convince the already estranged that politicians are unseemly and politics a pastime for fools. And therefore, the more likely the alienated citizen is to find something more absorbing to do on Nov. 3 than drag him- or herself to the polling place.
So inciting anger against politics serves a Republican purpose. One shouldn't exaggerate this, however. Left-wingers make the mistake of thinking that nonvoters are sitting on their hands waiting for a righteous party of the left, as if they constitute a reserve army of the potentially radical. There's no evidence for that, and a lot of evidence to the contrary. The liberal left has squandered its natural advantage on economic issues -- HMOs, the minimum wage, Social Security, education funding -- by resorting to a self-immolating identity politics that doesn't rely on its enemies to divide and conquer; it does the job itself.
But voter estrangement marries complacency in today's politics. This estrangement feeds on itself. Voters rule, nonvoters are ruled. The people who benefit least from politics as they exists are least likely to vote, and by not voting, preserve the lock the complacent have on the politics that works to the advantage of voters and the disadvantage of nonvoters. Thus, the self-fulfilling prophecy that rules American politics. Believing makes it so.
Prepare then for the next phase of the Republican Standoff -- the epilogue to their Revolution, which even in failing has succeeded in bottling up most Democratic initiatives, limited though they were, over the last four years. Despite the disappointments (for Republicans) of the Gingrich years, this failed Revolution still sets the boundaries of the possible for American decisions about wages, equality, health care, child care, labor law, trade, environment and whatever other issues you care to name. The best result Democrats hope for this week is a Republican victory too slender to support impeachment. True enough, rolling back the slow-motion Republican coup d'état that proceeded under cover of the prosecutorial Starr would be an achievement. It would be a fine thing to elect more than 41 senators, thus to remain cloture-proof. To put the Christian right in its place is a necessary condition for progress.
But for small-"d" democrats, a nondefeat defeat is a weak expectation indeed. Unhappy is a party that has need of such victories. Certainly Bill Clinton hoped for a better political legacy than mustering enough votes to avoid impeachment. The hope of making progress on the big questions in American politics is forestalled as long as nonvoters make up the majority party.