This year's register-and-vote campaigns have added millions of people to the rolls, including previously registered but indifferent citizens. But is a much larger and more active electorate necessarily good for democracy in America?
The Democrats claim that between 3 and 4 million new Democratic voters will participate in November. The Republicans, who have spent an estimated $10 million on their own registration drive, claim they have recruited as many, if not more, new Republican voters.
The Republican drive has been distinguished not only by ample money but also by intense dedication and considerable sophistication. (For example, the Republicans have registered only those citizens who "pre-qualify" by expressing support for the Great Communicator.) The Democrats have relied heavily on liberal organizations such as the NAACP and the National Organization for Women to increase the ranks of Democratic voters.
Jesse Jackson has promoted and unified the diverse Democratic efforts. In speeches across America, he has told his audiences that, by voting Democratic, they will demonstrate their preference for "the human race" over "the nuclear race," that they will "give peace a chance" and "give Reagan the ranch."
Jackson's ardent but inane rhymes have been aimed at those Americans eager to blame their difficulties on the administration's "unfairness." He has created from these grievances an agenda of resentment, and he has encouraged his followers to act on that agenda in the voting booth.
Of course, Jackson is a minister. But when it comes to claiming divine sanction for electoral action, even Jackson has not been as blatant as the fundamentalist Christian ministers serving as spiritual precinct captains for Ronald Reagan and the Republican Party.
Thousands of these ministers, including Moral Majority leader Jerry Falwell, have joined the American Coalition for Traditional Values (ACTV). The coalition was formally inaugurated at a June 11 White House reception attended by George Bush and his boss, who previously had lauded the coalition for its "potential to speak to the millions of committed Christians." So far, ACTV has been speaking to them through an aggressive register- and-vote campaign.
The fundamentalist ministers recognize that their followers are fearful of groups whose cultural background, economic situation or style of life is different from their own. The ministers also recognize that their followers are confronted by ordinary human problems in their "Christian communities" and "traditional families." Yet, the ministers urge their followers not to seek genuine self- knowledge -- that would smack of "secular humanism" -- but to attack the "immoral" forces represented by the Democratic Party.
The sermons and speeches of the New Right ministers have been reinforced by publications that present the November elections in apocalyptic terms. Gary Jarmin, ACTV's field director and legislative director for Christian Voice, said in August that church groups and broadcast preachers already had ordered 1.5 million copies of the Voice's "Presidential Biblical Scoreboard."
The introductory editorial of the "Scoreboard" warns readers, "If you fail to vote conscientiously for godly rule, evil will continue to increase in our nation. . . ." The editorial goes on to delare, "By using our "Scorehoard" and voting for candidates who support Judeo-Christian values, you will be doing your Christian duty in helping to reclaim America for God."
While the political parties have depended on register-and-vote campaigns to recruit supporters, image-conscious corporations have used such campaigns to show consumers that the corporations care about the nation's welfare. For example, the three major television networks occasionally pause from promoting the stupid prurience of "Paper Dolls" or the empty nihilism of "Late Night With David Letterman" to urge their viewers to do their civic duty.
The popular Music Television (MTV) cable service, two-thirds of whose audience is over 18, has aired a series of register-and-vote spots featuring rock stars. The theme of the campaign is expressed by a slogan: "Feel the Power." Voting is an exercise in self-assertion. Good citizenship consists of good vibrations.
Like the campaigns of Jesse Jackson, the fundamentalist ministers and the major networks, the MTV campaign involves ingenuity in the service of cynicism. The ingenuity lies in transforming apathetic citizens into aroused voters. The right emotion -- resentment, fear, narcissism -- and people will start signing registration forms and pulling voting levers.
None of these campaigns has encouraged Americans to reflect on important political matters, including the role of voting in a democratic society. In fact, the campaigns have discouraged reflection. It might inhibit citizens from voting for the illusion of their choice.