Vote “as if” your life depends on it

By occupostal for Occupy World Writes

By Minnesota Historical Society [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

1956 Window display promoting voting, Dayton’s, Minneapolis. By Minnesota Historical Society [CC-BY-SA-2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

My first impulse was to exhort you to vote in our upcoming American elections on November 4. Yes, it matters. In a number of ways. Just Google “importance of voting”  and you’ll get a litany of useful reasons that can be generalized no matter where you stand politically. Many of them will fall within this framework: (1) You and your vote are crucial to the democratic process that our government depends on—we don’t govern ourselves directly, but we need representatives who reflect our concerns and needs and can improve our lives. (2) The more local the election, the greater your impact in voting—and the greater the impact that the reps who get elected will have on your day-to-day life, because you live right here, not just in the “nation at large” or in your “virtual life” online. (3) Finally, if you don’t vote in an informed way you’ll wind up with a government of reps that answer to lowest common denominator partisanship and the big money that promoted those reps and to which their governing will inevitably (given human nature) answer. So if you don’t have the single hobbyhorse issue that extreme partisans tend to, or the deep pockets of the 1% elect, you had better vote and vote smartly informed.

That’s the Big Picture line on “why vote?”. But I’ll say no more about that here. Instead I want to focus on you and the reflexive “but–”’s you may be tempted to raise, before people like me and many of those writers who are Google-linked above, as to why it doesn’t really matter if people vote, or at least if you don’t vote. If that’s your reflex, then you are the fox contemplating the tempting grapes he’s just encountered—frustratingly out of reach, whether too far away for anybody or just for your own capacity to snatch them. So why should the grapes be important to anyone, and why should anyone besides me be able to get them? They’re sour, I tell you. Save the effort. Because the business of America isn’t voting, it’s the business of our individual lives. So move along… nothing to see here, and certainly nothing worth voting for. Everything remains the same no matter what I do or don’t do.

This way of thinking is rationalizing—defusing and shirking what should be a citizen’s responsibility (as you’ve been told so often). But like Dirty Harry, you must repeat to your own self: “A man has got to know his limitations”…. That way lies wisdom.

So let us begin your third degree…

  • My vote won’t matter anyway because all candidates and their parties are more similar than not in their positions and what they’ll end up doing. They’re behavior is dishonest and corrupt and they all do it!

Be honest yourself, and make a central distinction here: there’s a difference between habitual dishonesty and corruption, and being “compromised” on some issues and actions that stem from them. Candidates with the latter affliction are at least trying. They’re backsliding sinners, not nefarious tools of big money who’ll make a show of working on your behalf but never actually deliver, ever.

  • Okay, I see your point about fine distinctions. But a recent study of electoral outcomes supports my gut feeling. The only time the reps we vote for enact policies we want, rather than those the richest and most powerful want, is when the two of us want the same thing. Which isn’t very often!

Now it’s my turn to be honest. This is a dismaying insight that troubles my gut too. But only for a moment. Nothing is certain or permanent without continuous review, continuous proof that it might be inevitable. What we need to do is vote consistently, vote intelligently, and keep on voting that way over time, through every election and not just the big presidential and national ones. If this dismaying study’s insight proves to persist, then we’ve got an insurmountable problem worth giving up voting and instead revolting over. But I don’t think we have to get to that dire pass. A greater voting populace—keeping at it and doing it smartly—is a huge public pressure on politicians. Public, in that the quantity and quality of citizen concerns is going to be visible to everyone—and thus compared to what politicians are doing with this knowledge and the extent to which the two match up. You don’t need studies then, to see what’s happening. Vote and shed blinding light on cockroaches.

  • Well then, what’s “voting smart”?

Two salient strategies here to consider. (a) You can’t tell what’s accurate and adequate about a candidate’s positions from just advertising for or against them. Even on the One Big Issue you’d like to fix your vote to. So a little elbow grease and thinking are going to be involved. Other information about a candidate’s position and performance record should come from multiple sources—including those you don’t automatically turn to. Do your thinking outside the box; it’s the only way to be more confident about what you find out. (b) Do not be ruled by emotion, be ruled by thought. Do not be ruled by reflex fear, be ruled by your values. If you cannot trace a direct line from a candidate’s policy position back to your values—those he or she might want to claim in your eyes, because it looks good—then ditch the clown. They’re not for you. But know your values going in… and do your information homework.

  • But voting smart is hard, when so much money floods us with negative ads and otherwise dis-information.

Yes, it is hard. But this condition can be overcome. See the bullet just above for a start. Otherwise, you’re just complaining, taking a shortcut to souring those grapes.

Look at your world in this way. Everyone has a responsibility to self, then to family and other loved ones, then to local community, and thence to larger and larger communities. Each link seems more arguable, sometimes, the further out from your own self that it gets. But you can intuit that the links, all of them, are there. Because something that happens at one level, however far out, winds up affecting you. So you may as well push back and try to control what looks like a fate or force so far distant you can’t sense it most of the time. Because it’s still there, trust me.

By Dean Beeler (Uploaded by Petronas) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Voting lines in Ohio. By Dean Beeler (Uploaded by Petronas) [CC-BY-2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

In the end, you may ask what happens if I don’t take your advice and just coast along in the comforting anonymity of the non-voting world?

Look again at your situation in this way: If you do that, you’ll end up getting both what you deserve and what you don’t deserve.

What you deserve will be anything that happens in policy, locally or nationally, that changes your life for the worse, when you could have influenced that not happening.

What you don’t deserve will be anything that happens in policy that enhances your life for the better—because that came out of the work of intelligent and consistently hard-working voters who are your fellow neighbors and citizens.

Yes, I am being a tough-lover here. And the hay-maker is in this final swing at you:

Do you recall that anecdotal icon spun by an iconic conservative president in a political galaxy now far, far away? The one about the Chicago welfare queen who lived (and lives on in other guises) off the public coffers ?

Well, the U.S. Constitution‘s Preamble claims that one of its prime purposes is to “promote the general Welfare”–that purpose, you might say, which is closest to the experience of our daily lives. Citizens who vote exercise one of the main means of fulfilling this purpose in our form of representative democracy. Therefore if you do not vote… it is you, alas, who does not promote the quality of our public and private life. That job, if our general welfare is to be improved, is the consequence of others who vote. Yet you receive the benefits along with them.

So that inaction would make you, Dear non-voting Citizen Reader, a “general welfare queen.”

Please take your medicine and don’t become one. Keep your eyes on our collective prize instead.

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