Election 2012: Venezuelan Elections May Hold Insight for U.S. Low Voter Turnout


By Allison Horne and Chris Burrows
The Red Line Project

Posted: Wednesday, Oct. 17, 2012

On Oct. 7, Venezuelan voters flocked en masse to polling stations to vote in the country’s presidential election and re-elect controversial President Hugo Chavez.

According to the Washington Post, voters started forming lines hours before polling places opened. Some waited in line for up to four hours, and some polling places remained opened beyond the official closing time, according to Time Magazine.

Approximately 80 percent of eligible voters turned out in Venezuela, according to Der Spiegel, a rate that flies in the face of the 56.8 percent of American voters that cast ballots in the 2008 presidential election. Critics have expressed concern over low turnout rates in recent election history.

DePaul University Professor H. Peter Steeves thinks there is a better way.

Steeves, whose work has included communitarianism theory and Latin American politics, witnessed the rise of Chavez firsthand.

“There is a media blackout before the elections happen [in Venezuela], so you can’t run campaign ads a few days before,” Steeves said. “And there is a media blackout during the day of the election so [media] can’t be predicting what is happening, which could discourage certain groups of people from voting.”

Steeves was in Venezuela in 1992 to teach at the University of Zulia when Chavez mounted an unsuccessful coup. He said the contentious atmosphere of the time “freaked” him out, but over the years Steeves began to believe in the methods of the controversial leader.

“My initial reaction … was almost a sort of privileged, almost bourgeois response to the problems, because there were real people dying of hunger right there a few yards from the apartment where I was living,” Steeves said. “You had a country that was rich in oil with more than 80 percent of the people living far below the poverty line, and they had the oldest democracy in Latin America. … So what purpose was that serving?”

According to a 2011 report from the United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America, Venezuela now has the third-lowest poverty rate in Latin America, after 12 years under the rule of Chavez.

Steeves has worked to apply Chavez’s approach to politics to American democracy.

“On a larger scale, one of the things that I think Chavez is trying to do is trying to find a non-liberal approach to running a nation-state, and I’ve tried to use the model of communitarianism to make sense of what he’s doing,” Steeves said. “A lot of the stuff that I’ve published and worked on has been on communitarianism theory, which is sort of everything that weren’t not doing these days in politics.”

Communitarianism is an affront to classical liberalism, which forms the basis for American democracy. It proposes that the individual’s connection to his community is chief, and that values and beliefs are formed in public space.

Steeves said he doesn’t vote in American elections, because he doesn’t exist within the abbreviated, cramped spectrum of Republicans and Democrats.

“The spectrum itself, where you’re either going to be far left or far right and liberal and conservative fall somewhere in there … is a Liberal spectrum,” Steeves said. “I wouldn’t put myself anywhere on that spectrum. I would put myself outside of it.”

Steeves said he thinks the system itself is the problem, and that changes are coming.

“There’s a part of me that thinks revolution on some level – that revolution is necessary,” Steeves said. “I tend to think that this is on a collision course with itself. This is not sustainable the way that we’re living today.”

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