The New Civic Religion

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Now that the election is past, the press has moved its focus from why Bill Clinton should be elected to what a wonderful human being he is and what a swell president he will be. So far as I can determine, Jacob Weisberg is the only Clinton-fawner who has had even the vaguest of second thoughts. The overwhelming majority of other news folk remain enamored of their man, and act more like public relations lacks than reporters.

What else is new? I recall after the Reagan victory in 1980, many in the press turned away from dumping on Reagan and began to fawn over Ronnie as though he were a movie star. I remember Dan Rather groveling before Pat Robertson after Robertson’s surprise victory in the Iowa caucuses in 1988. Who can forget the “Kennedy-mania” that gripped the press (and the country) after JFK’s hair’s breadth victory over Nixon in 1960? Or the “Trudeau-mania” that swept Canada after loony Pierre’s election in 1968?

Part of this swooning is simply success-worship, a characteristic trait of Homo americanus. Just as Americans conclude that money-making is evidence of intelligence in a businessman, so they conclude that electoral success is evidence of wisdom and moral virtue in a politician. Another element is simple bootlicking: the president has many jobs to hand out, and some members of the press corps hope to follow in the heroic footsteps of John Chancellor, Ron Nessen, and Pierre Salinger. And the president has favors to dispense to reporters, ranging from granting private interviews to calling on a reporter at a press conference.

But there is more to this swooning, I am convinced. It is a natural element in the civic religion that has replaced Christianity as America’s faith. This religion has many tenets, and though they are generally not stated baldly, they underlie much of public life in America. Among those dogmas are several that go a long way toward explaining the mysteries of the electoral and postelectoral process.

Even if our votes really makes a difference. This belief underlies the repeated exhortation to “get out and vote,” and the whole array of variations on the argument, “If you care about the future of your country (or your own future), you should vote.” The proposition that each of our votes makes a difference is absurd, even on the face of it. Once in a great while an election, invariably at the local level, is tied or won by a single vote. When this happens, the proponents of voting publicize it far and wide, citing it as evidence that “every vote counts.” In reality, the extreme rarity of such cases illustrates the fact that your vote really doesn’t make a difference. If you doubt this, ask yourself how many times you have voted and how many of the elections involved would have had different outcomes if you hadn’t voted. The answer for virtually all Americans is the same: in a lifetime of voting, their vote has never swung an election.

A corollary to this proposition underlies the two-party monopoly: don’t waste your vote by voting for an independent or third-party candidate. Your vote is a valuable possession because it really makes a difference, but you waste it if you don’t vote for a candidate with a chance of victory (i.e. a major-party candidate). Of course, this makes even less sense than the original proposition that your vote makes a difference. In the overwhelming majority of elections, one of the two contending major party candidates has no more chance of winning than minor party candidates. Why, for example, would any proponent of the”don’t-waste-your-vote” argument vote for Bush? By-election morning, his chance of victory was the same as Ross Perot’s or Andre Marrou’s: virtually none at all.

Voting is a virtue in and of itself “At least he voted,” people will say. The Advertising Council produces “get-out-the-vote” advertisements imploring people to vote even if they are so ill-informed, indifferent, or unmotivated that they have no opinion. Some of these ads even suggest making up one’s mind while in the voting booth.

Of course, this makes no sense. Is it really virtuous to go to the polls to vote your own narrowly defined self-interest, which may be completely contrary to the common good? Is it virtuous to cast unreflective, thoughtless, ignorant votes? Apparently most Americans think so, else why would people respond favorably when someone says, “I didn’t know who I was going to vote for until I got in the voting booth, but I voted.”

Winning an election confers a mandate upon the victor, thanks to its demonstration that Americans have a consensus on the important public issues they face. Virtually every election is followed by earnest explanations that the election constituted a “mandate for change” or a “mandate to stay the course,” not to mention platitudes like, “the people have spoken.”

This is idiotic. For one thing, very seldom is an election won with any substantial margin. Of the 42 presidential elections held under the current electoral system, 15 were won without a majority of voters. Two were won by candidates who finished second in the popular vote. Obviously there were no mandates in these cases.

But it is difficult to perceive a mandate even in the most lopsided victories. Consider the two presidential elections in which the winner amassed the largest victory.

Lyndon Johnson captured 61.2% of the vote in 1964. NaturaIly, Johnson claimed the people had granted him a mandate for substantial policy changes. Yet in 1960, when Johnson ran for vice president with Kennedy on substantially the same platform, the ticket received only 49.7% of the vote and in 1968, Johnson was so unpopular that he felt obliged to drop out of the presidential race. When Johnson’s vice president tried to carry on the LBJ program, he managed to capture only 42.8% of the vote.

Did the American voters change their minds twice within that eight-year period about what direction they wanted the country to go? Or was Johnson’s huge majority in 1964 the product of other factors – say, sympathy for the martyred JFK, a desire to stabilize government in the wake of the assassination, and a panicky fear of Barry Goldwater, who had been portrayed in the press as a lunatic?

In 1972, Richard Nixon captured 60.7% of the vote. Yet  four years earlier, he was elected with only 43.4% of the vote. Two years after his landslide victor~he was forced to resign from office, and in the subsequent election his party’s nominee (and his hand-picked vice president) captured only 48.8% of the vote. Did the voters intend a mandate to enact Nixon’s program in 1972? Or did they vote for him for other reasons – for example, gratitude at his having wound down the Vietnam war, a fear of the widely perceived radical leftism of the opposing candidate, or a desire for stability after the chaos of the 1960s?

“Let the word go forth, from this day and hour, that a new generation of Americans …” intoned Jack Kennedy upon his election. Yet fewer than half of Americans voted and fewer than half of those voting cast their ballots for Kennedy; he outpolled his opponent by a margin of about 0.15% (I.E., one vote out of every 600 cast), at least according to official figures, which probably reflect significant vote fraud. Meanwhile, the opposition party made major gains in the Congress.

Of course, there are some electoral victories that do constitute mandates for change. A careful examination of electoral history reveals three “mandate” elections: 1980 (Ronald Rea- gan), 1936 (Franklin Roosevelt), and 1920 (Warren Harding). Reagan wrested the presidency from an elected incumbent by a substantial margin, brought numerous members of his party into Congress, and was reelected by an even larger margin. And he did so running on a platform that differed from current and recent past policies, and was very well known to voters.

Roosevelt had ousted an incumbent in 1932, but that year he ran on a platform of smaller government, lower taxes, the gold standard, and a balanced budget. Upon his election, he immediately abandoned this platform and adopted poli-

Why would any proponent of the “don’t- waste-your-vote” argument vote for Bush? By election morning, his chance of victory was the same as Ross Perot’s or Andre Marrou’s: virtually none at all.


cies diametrically opposed to much of it. The fact that FDR promised one program and delivered another without upsetting the voters supports the hypothesis that in 1932 the voters were primarily rejecting Herbert Hoover, not issuing a mandate for the radical program that Roosevelt eventually enacted. By 1936, Roosevelt’s program was partially enacted, and voters knew what he was about; he was reelected with an even larger majority.

In 1920, Harding captured the White House from the opposition with 60.5% of the popular vote, on a platform calling for a return to isolationism, tax reduction, and smaller government. He died in office before having a chance to run for reelection, but not before his program was largely enacted.

If you doubt that your vote doesn’t make a difference, ask yourself how many times you have voted and how many of the elections involved would have had different outcomes if you hadn’t voted.


His successor was reelected with 54% entrance into the race of one of the most credible third-party challengers of this century. (Robert LaFollette captured 17% of the vote.)

But that’s it. Try as I might, I cannot see that any other presidential election qualifies as a “mandate for change.” That’s three elections out of 42, or one election every 84 years, wherein the voters demonstrated anything resembling a mandate for change. In most elections, the electorate splits its votes pretty evenly between two candidates whose programs are very similar. The voters intend no mandate at all.

Armed with our mandate, our leader is able to solve our problems. When Nazism was in flower, Americans liked to make fun of the Filhrerprinzip, or “leadership principle.” Yet in our own countr~we observe it with religious fervor. If we elect the right person president, he will solve our problems. In times of crisis, the right man comes to the fore, takes charge, and America continues to fulfill its destiny as the greatest country on earth.

I think it is safe to say that the United States has only faced two great crises in its history: the unraveling of the Union that culminated in the Civil War, and the Great Depression that seemed to threaten revolution. In the first case, the winner of the critical election won with less than 40% of the popular vote, the smallest vote to elect any president since political parties took hold. Lincoln’s election itself precipitated the Civil War, which resulted in the loss of over 620,000 lives, the destruction of billions of dollars of proper~.suspension of the Constitution, and the imposition on the nation of conscription, income taxes, and inflationary paper money. In the second case, the nation elected as its president a man who enacted and imposed a political program hardly different from that of Mussolini or Hitler(aside from Hitler’s racism), and from which the U.S. still suffers.

Of course, both Lincoln and Roosevelt the Younger are remembered today as great men who saved their nation. These were cases of self-fulfilling prophesies: whoever is leader of any nation during any crisis will be remembered as a great man if the nation prevails. Since Americans are enamored with the Filhrerprinzip, they are inclined to give credit to their leaders when they prevail in a crisis. In fact, the United States prevailed and prospered despite the actions and policies of Messrs Lincoln and Roosevelt. They were not great men; they had greatness thrust upon them. And greatness would have been thrust upon anyone else elected in 1860 or 1932.

How well does the electoral process work? Look at the results. In the half-century since World War II ended, we have used this electoral process to select:

• a power-hungry career politician, who had never had a job outside politics;

• a second-rate clubman, incapable of uttering a coherent sentence;

• a modestly successful actor who turned to politics when his movie career faltered;

• a peanut farmer, dependent for his living on a government-granted license guaranteeing a substantial income;

• a career politician, who used the power of his office to undermine the electoral process;

• a megalomaniac who made himself a multimillionaire while in elected office, raised taxes repeatedly and got us into a war that cost billions of dollars and tens of thousands of American lives;

• a playboy pushed into office by his ambitious father; • a retired military leader;

• a failed haberdasher, who advanced in politics as the agent of a corrupt political machine.

Can you imagine any of them achieving anything in any other field? Which of these men, if he hadn’t pursued politics, could have been a successful scientist? a successful writer? a successful anything? Sure, the c1ubman made some money in business as a young man, before he began to pursue power on a full-time basis. Yeah, the military man was a bigshot in World War II, but this was a case of greatness thrust upon the man. Sure, the playboy “won” a Pulitzer Prize, but his book was written by a hireling and the prize was awarded only after his father spent a fortune campaigning for it. Only the actor had anything resembling a successful career outside politics.

Indeed, the two presidential contenders during this same period who demonstrated genuine character were soundly defeated. I refer, of course, to Barry Goldwater and Eugene McCarth~both men of conviction, and considerable decency

USA Today’s headline the morning after the election was “LANDSLIDE.” Yet Clinton got a smaller percentage of the vote than Dukakis got when Bush clobbered him in 1988.


and honor. Goldwater won his party’s nomination, only to face humiliating defeat in the voting booth. McCarthy managed to unseat the incumbent president of his own party but failed to come close to capturing its nomination.

Once the people have spoken, we must unite behind our leader. This is a corollary of the last two principles. We give our leader a mandate and he solves our problems. But if we perversely refuse to unite behind our leader, then his hands are tied, and our problems may get worse.

The commentator on ABC who exhorted us to unity behind our new leader, and excoriated Sen. Bob Dole for saying that he expected his party to provide critical oversight on Clinton, based his beliefs on the Filhrerprinzip. (He stopped short of accusing Dole of treason, barely.)

The desire for a mandate and for unity takes many amusing forms. My own favorite example was USA Today’s headline the morning after the election: “LANDSLIDE.” This was an enthusiastic characterization, to say the least, considering that Clinton got a smaller percentage of the popular vote than Michael Dukakis got when Bush clobbered him in 1988.

In fact, since our current electoral method has been in place, only two presidents have ever been elected with a smaller portion of the popular vote than Clinton’s. In 1912, Woodrow Wilson took advantage of a split in the Republican Party to sneak into the presidency. Wilson’s administration brought us the income tax, World War I, the effective abolition of freedom of speech, and national prohibition. In 1860, Republican Abraham Lincoln was elected with 39.6% of the vote, thanks to a split in the Democratic Party. His election brought us the Civil War and all its attendant horrors. Let’s hope Clinton’s administration will be better than these.

The Civic Religion has many other doctrines, equally unexamined, equally idiotic, but all serving a critical function.

They are lies on which our civic life is based.

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