Posted Wednesday, Aug. 1, 2012, at 9:36 AM
Ah, the pleasures of the North Carolina barrier islands in July: running on long, clean beaches, grilling hot dogs for the kids, pulling blue crabs right off the beach, lazily reading Updike's collected works, surf casting for red drum and sea trout, bikinis, beers and Baseball Tonight before collapsing between in slightly sandy sheets.
Oh, and lies. Lies from the left, lies from the right - and in the middle, people like the nice middle-class families renting cottages on either side of my family, so completely disgusted with the carpet bombing air war of falsehood unleashed by Barack Obama and Mitt Romney in this battleground state that they have both decided not to vote in November.
Such is the state of American democracy. I'm not going to bore you with a recounting of the lies being told by each candidate, who "stand by this ad," as both of their spots have them saying. The Annenberg Public Policy Center's factcheck.org does a far better job than one disgusted blogger could ever do. While most Americans probably never heard of factcheck.org, I know it influences reporters around the world and that work may penetrate to the average citizen in one way or another. In days past - the early 1990s for instance - that might have been enough to balance out what's contaminating the airwaves - or even to shame one or the other campaign to offer a "negative ad" truce.
Not today. Between the "see no evil" Supreme Court's decision in Citizens' United, and the fact that most of our media has atomized into a fact distorting lie-by-omission machine, the casual victim of our democracy stands no chance. So, like a discouraged worker who can't find a job, like the nice people I'm sharing this beach with, they simply drop out.
I've spent a good deal of my career covering people who have put their lives on the line for the right to vote: the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, the corrupt oligarchies of the Middle East, the US supported dictatorships of 1980s Latin America and Africa and the communist prison states of Cuba and North Korea. Some - the Czech Republic, Poland, Chile, and dozens of others, emerged into functioning, admirable democracies; some, like Russia and Belarus, faltered and ossified into oligarchies. Other remain trapped in the communist past.
But one thing they all have in common once dictatorship is overthrown: their people vote. Fighting for that right is something distant to Americans - particularly white male Americans. It's been a guaranteed right for over 200 years, and so easy to take for granted. (Women and African-Americans may have a slightly different sense of the value of the franchise, but their addition to the mix hasn't brought our numbers up much).
The last presidential election that saw more than 65 percent of US registered voters cast a ballot was in 1904, when Teddy Roosevelt won his second term (he first took office in 1901 to complete the term of assassinated President William McKinley). The past two elections - 2004 and 2008 - have seen voter turnout move above 50 percent for the first time in a generation, and 2008's 61.6 percent was the highest in a generation.
Now, a good deal beyond disgust goes into driving voters away. The manipulation of voter registration rolls plays its part, as does pure incompetence on the part of state and federal elections officials. Some simply can't vote - because their jobs make it difficult, because they have childcare or other unrelenting domestic responsibilities, or physical disabilities. And ignorance, too, must be factored in (though if you're too drunk and stupid to get out of bed and vote, maybe Darwinism is doing us a favor).
I hope I'm proven wrong this year about the effect on our democracy of the body blows dealt by the Supreme Court, the cynical professional political whores running both presidential campaigns, and the final, wrenching collapse of the American media as an arbitor of, well, anything.
But the two families I met this week - in separate conversations - simply cannot find their way to the polls. The thicket of lies, the discouraging inability of Barack Obama to articulate why he deserves four more years, the soul-crushing plasticity of Mitt Romney, all of it simply ensures that taking a position sits very low on a hard working family's list of priorities.
Happily for me, I'm still on vacation. But I have only four more days to get them to reconsider. Cue the beer and crab legs.