I just got back from Australia. Nice country; it’s like California, but solvent. They have compulsory voting there. By Tea Party standards, that makes them one gulag shy of North Korea. But Aussies don’t have to vote for Dear Leader, or anyone at all. They can leave their ballot blank; they just have to send it in.
Think about what Tuesday night’s primaries would be like if we required something like that. (It would be trickier in primaries than in general elections, but go with it). On the one hand, millions of Americans might have to DVR their favorite reality TV show. On the other, we probably wouldn’t elect candidates like Christine O’Donnell. The press will interpret her victory as fresh evidence that America has swung to the right. But the better explanation is that only Americans who swing right bothered to vote. Turnout, especially in off year elections, and especially in primaries in off year elections, is notoriously low. In Delaware, admittedly a small state, O’Donnell won a contest in which only 50,000 people turned out.
• Daily Beast contributors on the primary resultsMost Americans, according to the polls, have a negative view of the Tea Party. Obama, for all his woes, is still more popular than Sarah Palin. But the center, not to mention the left, is disillusioned, apathetic, checked out. The right is the only segment of the electorate that currently cares. And that means that loons like O’Donnell will not only win primaries, but that they could be coming to a legislative body near you.
It’s a cliché that midterm elections are about the intensity of a few. What if they were about the will of the electorate as a whole? A crazy idea, I know, and totalitarian too.
Peter Beinart, senior political writer for The Daily Beast, is associate professor of journalism and political science at City University of New York and a senior fellow at the New America Foundation. His new book, The Icarus Syndrome: A History of American Hubris, is now available from HarperCollins. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.