How wealth can affect voter turnout

As American affluence increases, there is less voter participation. Will prosperity mean the same for Iraq?

Just before the start of the Iraq war, I considered writing a column suggesting an occupation strategy based on consumerism. Once Saddam Hussein's army had been defeated, I was going to propose that coalition forces move into every metropolitan area, set up a Wal-Mart or Costco outlet, and flood the surrounding communities with low-priced appliances, kitchen accessories, and other household items.

It was going to have a humorous tone based on a simple premise: Since we were committing billions of dollars to bring freedom and stability to Iraq, a huge infusion of commercial culture seemed like the most cost-effective method of showing average Iraqis that regime change was a good thing. How about an NBA expansion franchise in Baghdad? I was also planning to suggest a comprehensive gun buy-back program that would lower the number of weapons on the street while pumping badly needed cash into the economy.

In the end, I decided any satirical comment on the invasion wouldn't be appropriate or amusing. But now, three years into the war, I'm beginning to think some of my ideas might have serious applications in any discussion about where democracy is heading in Iraq, and in the US.

One ongoing mantra from pundits on both the left and right is that support for the new Iraqi government will wither away unless basic municipal services are drastically improved.

Progress can't happen when people are forced to spend their time scrambling to find clean water and a reliable source of electricity.

However, Iraqis who look closely at American society as a template for their own future may notice a puzzling behavior pattern: During the past few decades as our population became more affluent and urban infrastructure improved, fewer and fewer citizens were taking part in the democratic process.

Here in Oregon we have mail-in balloting, but even with this convenient system, the turnout for the May primary was just 39 percent, and closer analysis by election officials showed that nonparticipation was highest among voters ages 18 to 40.

Words like "apathy" and "disillusionment" are often used to explain this trend, but I think the most likely answer is simpler: Nonvoters these days don't see any obvious consequences to their decision. They wake up the next morning and the water is still on, TV channels are working, stores are open, life seems totally unchanged, and they feel fine about the whole situation.

Who needs politicians when there's so much good stuff available?

And so I wonder if my idea for transforming Iraq with an army of merchandise was satirical after all. Making a democracy is hard. Making it survive for more than a couple of centuries is probably harder. It's especially difficult for people born into comfortable circumstances to appreciate that previous generations worked hard to get us here.

In 1920, my mother watched her own mother and grandmother walk out the door of their house in Los Angeles and head for the polls to vote for the first time in their lives. I heard that story often during childhood, and it's the main reason I have never failed to vote in any election. In just 14 years we'll be marking the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment.

I wonder if Iraq will be holding elections then, and if so, which of our two democracies will have the best turnout?

Jeffrey Shaffer writes about media, American culture, and personal history.

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