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Mind, Body, and the Civic Soul - 05/05/09

Recently, I've been doing some home work on possible causes of voter apathy. In a previous article I reported on research that hypothesizes a connection between genetics, political belief, and political behavior. This research has been given a name, genopolitics.

Other research by social scientists shows a significant relationship between civic interest and heritability. In other words, we are inclined to do what Dad did. This implies there may also be influential genetic factors at play in political behavior. However, these nascent studies do not identify specific "candidate" genes that would account for higher or lower levels of civic interest.

Newer research has identified two genes most likely associated with political behavior. They are monoamine oxidase A (MAOA) and the seratonin transporter, 5HTT. The latter is also known as SERT or by its formal designation, SLC6A4.

Scientists call these genes "prime candidates" because they exert a strong influence on the parts of the brain that regulate social behavior.

The 5HTT gene in particular plays an important role in the amygdala, the part of the brain which is involved in emotions such as fear; and in a variety of cognitive functions, such as attention, perception, and memory. 5HTT is sometimes referred to as "the depression gene" because the "design" of this gene in different people may explain why some people become more depressed than others in stressful situations. 5HTT "design" may as well be a factor in political behavior.

While genetic research into political behavior might sound a bit like mad scientists dissecting brains in a secret laboratory of the Third Reich, the current investigation does not isolate itself from the work of social scientists, and also takes into account social and environmental influences on political behavior. No one is suggesting that people are irreversibly "hard wired" to be apathetic.

Social research shows, for example, that prosocial individuals are more likely to vote and participate in civic affairs. Geneticists working from that basis hypothesize that genes influence voting and political participation because they first influence social behavior.

Other studies on the social science side have shown that charitable people and people who attend church on a regular basis are more likely to vote. One theory is that church membership builds in individuals a sense of belonging to a larger community, and from that a sense of civic obligation. On the other hand, people with an aversion to social conflict are less likely to become involved in politics.

Some studies suggest that people whose candidate of choice lost in the previous election are less likely to vote. People who expect to lose in the current election, likewise, are less likely to vote. There is also an important segment of potential voters who do not vote because they have resigned themselves to the myths that "all politicians are the same" and that nothing can be changed by their vote or participation.

At the time of the city elections in Deerfield Beach, there were between 60 and 64,000 adult residents of the city. 40,252 were registered to vote, and 6,374 voted at large.

As horrendous as these figures are, the 15.8% participation rate in the 2009 elections in Deerfield Beach, as measured by the ratio of actual to registered voters, surpassed Broward County overall, which had an 11% voter turnout county-wide.

One of the most frequently employed strategies to combat low voter turnout is voter registration drives. Because it is easy to register to vote, however, some commentators have suggested that other factors, such as the fact that most elections are conducted on a working day, are more significant "impediments" to voting than the trouble it takes to register.

Some say that city elections should be conducted in November rather than in March to correspond with the presidential and state elections. The next elections in Districts 1 and 2 are set for March, 2011, the year after the vote for top state officials. We would expect voter turnout to be even lower than this year. The "November question" might be worth revisiting after the 2011 election. At least 14 Broward County cities conduct their city elections on the days voters elect the president and governor.

There are pros and cons to moving city elections to November, but election stats would definitely look better. In the November, 2008, presidential election, around 70% of Deerfield voters cast ballots. (Obviously, this still does not address the underlying causes of voter apathy in city elections. People who have a real interest in city affairs will find a way to register and vote without making major sacrifices no matter what day the elections are held.)

Another fact is that participation in elections has declined over the years in spite of an expanding voter base in the city:

























Does voter apathy really erode democracy? This is the stock argument used in setting up voter registration drives. Here are some thoughts on this:

First, civic interest, or apathy, is a concept that covers a range of political behaviors and attitudes. While apathetic citizens are sometimes described as "stupid" or "lazy," these adjectives do not necessarily apply to all non-voters.

A. There are people who have no interest in politics or civic affairs at any level. Maybe it's because their parents were apathetic or maybe it's genetics. Effective democracy, in my opinion, can not be based on the premise that "everyone" must or will participate.

These people are not worth the trouble.

B. I believe that there is a class of potential voters, relatively well informed and interested in local civic affairs, who do not vote. These people are not "stupid" or "lazy," but choose not to participate for a variety of reasons. They may not like the social conflict or competition inherent in politics.

These people are reachable.

C. Local government is where citizens are potentially most empowered. The decline of voter turnout and civic interest where citizens can have a direct impact on public policy decisions implies that government at this level is no longer perceived as particularly relevant or important by a large group of potential voters.

People must be convinced otherwise.

Second, actual impediments to voting and fair elections, such as voter discrimination or voter fraud, are far more dangerous to democracy than the fact that some people don't vote. As long as all citizens 18 years and older have the opportunity to register and vote, democracy is safe.

Third, the level of voter participation is no more accurate an indicator of majority will than the vote itself. There is no logical or factual basis to predict that the results of an election would be different if more people voted.

Clearly, where the majority of citizens do not vote or otherwise participate of civic affairs, this works to the advantage of corrupt politicians and special interests. Established political groups don't have to worry as much about accountability and face less opposition. The participatory features of local government politics which produce new generations of community leadership -- government meetings, town meetings, homeowners' and neighborhood associations and activist organizations -- may break down as civic interest and a sense of civic obligation decline.

I think we've already seen this process at work in the recent elections when Deerfield Beach faced its election crisis earlier this year. There was no "New Guard" to run for office when the established candidates were effectively removed from the picture. Yes, there were new faces, but they were largely unknown, underfinanced, and some had no prior involvement in local politics. The most viable candidates for mayor were the same people that have dominated politics in the city for more than 20 years and are likely to control the city for another 20 years unless a new group of citizen-activists-leaders emerges.

There is no silver bullet for voter apathy and the decline of civic interest. If the election of 2009 did not generate interest, what possibly will?

Somehow or another citizens must be persuaded that local government is still important and that many public policy decisions at this level affect their personal interests. Many people only get this point when a decision is made that directly and adversely impacts them, and they didn't even know it was in the works.

The city needs a new generation of leaders for good government. It's not overly important the numbers or percentages, because only the people who can be mobilized and rallied count.

But, of course, the revival of the "civic soul" in a community is easier written about than done.