The fundamental principle of a democratic society is that the general population (however that population is measured or qualified) decides its own course through the election of public officials and leaders. The consent and active participation of a population is thus critical for the accuracy of the public beliefs to be made manifest in the election of like minded individuals: without a majority opinion on any given issue, a radical or extreme minority can easily sway a nation in any direction it pleases once it has reached a critical mass of voting power.
According to the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA), in presidential elections since 1948 the American population has averaged a 58.47% turnout ratio among the voting age population (VAP). Since 1964, the percentage of registered voters participating in elections has continued to decline from the 95.83% in the 1964 election. This trend declined at a faster pace in the last 20 years: from 1992 through 2012 the percentage has gone from 89.96% to an abysmal 66.65%. In population numbers, over 48 million people eligible to vote did not register, and 112 million total eligible voters (including those registered) did not vote.
These numbers get even worse when we take into consideration primary elections. According to the United States Election Project (USEP), in the 2012 election year, the average voter age eligible population (VEP) turnout, including both caucus and primary elections, was only 11.8% with the highest percentage being New Hampshire at 31.1% and the lowest being Wyoming at a miserable 0.3%. These numbers improve slightly in highly contested years: during the 2008 election the average VEP turnout was 26.2%. This, however, is still indicative of the larger issue: if people want to complain about ending up with “terrible candidate choices” they should be more willing to go out and vote for them.
It is safe to say that the greatest tragedy of modern democracy in America is not the incompetence of some who get elected, but rather that so many people do not bother to participate in a system that so many in our world have not the privilege of doing at all.