In less than a month, state and local elections will be upon us. This is an off-year, so the most controversial items before us will be a confusing array of citizen initiatives – table games or slot machines in York County, expansion of Medicaid eligibility across Maine and establishing rent controls and broadening resident participation in proposed zoning changes in Portland, as well as numerous proposals in other municipalities. On top of the collective guilt or simple frustration with the dead weight of politics these days, it’s enough to give the conscientious citizen a bad case of voting fatigue.

My suggestion? Forget the controversies in the daily newspapers. Forget the growing blight of street signs and the coming flood of TV ads that promise to be both indignantly angry and deceptively innocent. Forget the sage ruminations of the know-it-alls in your coffee klatches. For my money, the best preparation for our coming deluge of civic responsibilities is a close reading of two brief, coherent and entirely contradictory essays.

The first is an essay published in The Washington Post on Sept. 22 by liberal Post columnist E.J. Dionne and Thomas E. Mann and Norman J. Ornstein of the conservative American Enterprise Institute, adapted from their new book, “One Nation After Trump.”

Their thesis is that “the election of Donald Trump could be one of the best things that ever happened to American democracy.” They say this not because they agree with what the president is doing – in fact, they believe that “he has done enormous damage to our country” – but rather because “he has jolted much of the country to face problems that have been slowly eroding our democracy.”

The authors assert that Trump “has aroused a popular mobilization that may far outlast him” and “could be the occasion for an era of democratic renewal.”

In short, if you believe that more voter involvement will cure what ails us, go read all the policy papers behind the voter initiatives, make up your mind and get out and vote. Then sit back and wait for our current political malaise to fade away.


The second essay is by Jonathan Rauch and Benjamin Wittes of the Center for Public Management at the Brookings Institution, and it’s titled “More professionalism, less populism: How voting makes us stupid, and what to do about it.”

Their review of the scientific literature in political science is crystal clear: “Voter ignorance is one of the oldest, best established, and most dismaying (facts) in all of political science.” The authors go on to say that “neither theory nor practice supports the idea that more participation will produce better policy outcomes.”

Rauch and Wittes make this claim not because they disapprove of public participation in governance, but because they believe that such participation is effective “only when supplemented by intermediation, the work done by institutions (such as political parties) and substantive professionals (such as career politicians and experts) to organize, interpret, and buffer popular sentiment.” While sympathetic to many of the goals of what they call the “populist model,” Rauch and Wittes simply assert – based on hundreds of analyses of hundreds of issues – that its fundamental cornerstones are simply not true:

That voters can become more informed, more rational and more engaged than they ever in the past have been.

That such informed voters can replace non-elected professional and specialist decision makers (the elites) in all of the multitude of issues that face our (or any other democratic) country.

These two beliefs are naïve, according to Rauch and Wittes, and they amount to condemning the nation to its continuing slide into populist anger, divisiveness, violence and social collapse.


Instead, they argue for strengthening the interest intermediators, including political parties, group associations and career politicians. These, they believe, are the institutions interested in delving into the details, finding the facts, recognizing the reality that some groups win and some lose on any particular issue, but that all groups have to work together to get anything done. Rauch and Wittes are unapologetic supporters of James Madison and the critical importance of representative democracy in comparison to direct democracy. “Unmediated democracy,” they say, “is often less representative and less democratic – that is the paradox of populism.”

So, reflect on these alternative views of what ails our body politic before deciding how to cast your vote next month … that is, if you bother to vote.

Consulting economist Charles Lawton, Ph.D., can be contacted at:

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