If Americans don’t vote in record numbers in this year’s election it won’t be because they haven’t been reminded. Bob Schieffer concluded the third debate with an admonishment to vote. Students continue to rock “Rock the Vote” buttons, even if it is unlikely to result in 2008-level turnouts among college students.
We often take voting to be the measure of the citizen. Belonging to and participation in public life are the defining features of citizenship, which makes one wonder why voting has come to occupy the prominent role it does in our imaginaries of citizenship. It is, in many ways, the least consequential thing we do as citizens, particularly since our vote will be inconsequential. In a mass democracy of 130 million votes, any one vote is horribly devalued. In that sense, our vote accurately captures our place in the whole.
We behave far more consequentially as citizens when we shovel our neighbor’s driveway, keep our lawn well-trimmed, or devote our efforts to teaching our children virtue. Yet there are those who will continue to insist that the act of voting is the apogee of public life, and on Tuesday will wear their “I voted today” stickers with more pride than a Catholic wears ashes on Ash Wednesday.
The idea that voting is the essence of democratic citizenship receives its greatest impetus from Rousseau. In his natural history of the species Rousseau presents associative life as unnatural and integrally related to the features of shame, vice, and inequality that are the features of modern politics. The new social contract he proposes reduces the individual’s will and interest to its concordance with the general will, and offers the plebiscite as the essential moment of that relationship. All other relationships are held subordinately, for they threaten to fracture the unity expressive of mutual interest. Voting thus becomes the constitutive, defining act of citizenship for it is the only one that pulls people out of their unity-destroying associative life into the higher will.
Those writing at the American founding seem far less concerned about the franchise. The time, place and manner of presidential elections was to be left to the states. The electoral college was designed to act as a buffer to majority preferences. They still believed state and local politics ought to take preference over national politics (or, at the very least, there was a vigorous debate about this). They didn’t create Rousseau’s society – the President is no Rousseauian lawgiver, after all – but there are powerful impetuses in that direction.
To be sure, the fact of the plebiscite is not inconsequential. Having the franchise is not only intimately connected with a whole range of civil rights, but forces politicians to take the concerns of many different groups into account in policy formation. If we worry that we live in a plutocracy now, think of how bad things would be if middle-class and lower-class voters were legally disenfranchised. A dependence on the people, after all, remains the surest check on tyranny, unless the people have been bought off.
Voting is no panacea, however. Voters will often choose unwisely, falling victim to the charms of the demagogue. Hamilton’s confidence that “The process of election affords a moral certainty, that the office of President will never fall to the lot of any man who is not in an eminent degree endowed with the requisite qualifications” now seems woefully misplaced. “Talents for low intrigue, and the little arts of popularity,” he wrote, “may alone suffice to elevate a man to the first honors in a single State; but it will require other talents, and a different kind of merit, to establish him in the esteem and confidence of the whole Union, or of so considerable a portion of it as would be necessary to make him a successful candidate for the distinguished office of President of the United States.” Well then, so much for moral certainty.
Our electoral process insures that we perpetuate one of the most dangerous tendencies of modern American politics: the accretion of power into the executive branch. The presidency has become a lightning rod for public expectations, and the President himself comes to be viewed as a great leader who possesses thaumaturgic powers. (Maybe this is why Kauffman calls it the framer’s biggest mistake – a claim with no small amount of competition.) What is missing, inter alia, is a sense of modesty or proportion, and anyone holding the office is unlikely to retain whatever residual humanity they have left.
Alasdair MacIntyre famously argued in the 2004 election that the only responsible choice was not to vote. There is much to commend the view, and the writers here take such a view seriously. But it is not the last word on the subject, and we’d not be doing our job if we kept completely silent. Voting may be the faintest expression of a citizen’s voice, but it is still one we take seriously. More seriously, alas, than either party.
See Jeremy’s entry at The American Conservative.
Louisville, Kentucky. As another presidential election rolls around, I find myself once again the political equivalent of a strict vegetarian at an all-game dinner–hungry for that Third Thing, that Tertium Quiddity, which is not.
Yes, my local ballot offers me the option of voting for a straight party ticket of Democrat, Republican, Green, Libertarian and the local microparty, Descendants of American Slaves, but voting for those third, fourth or fifth things–however much more satisfying than voting for the main parties–are just semaphoring to the dark. If there is anything I hate to be told, it is that I have a choice.
Some people vote against a presidential candidate, of course, and some tell themselves their protest vote will game the system in some tiny way, but I want my yes to be yes and my no to be no, and I want my vote to be irony- and sarcasm-free. Tough luck in the national elections. The last major party candidate I voted for took us straight into an undeclared war in a country half the Senate couldn’t place on a map, and I am still washing that spot off my stained hands.
That leaves the local races. In the small county where I used to live my vote did count; I knew many of the candidates, there was often a choice between a good one and a poor one, and some races were tight. Now that I live in the big city, voting is always a more diluted civic action, and this year the ballot is thin. There is no contest for U.S. Representative (it will be John Yarmuth again, an enjoyable but resolute liberal). The candidates for state senator, state rep, Commonwealth’s attorney and our two county commissioners are all running unopposed. The school board offers some interest but not much hope, since with over 100,000 students and the latest new federal standards, Jefferson County is too big a ship to sail.
Which leaves my council seat and two races for judgeships—if it weren’t for those, I might not vote at all. There is no joy in rubber stamping an inevitable outcome in a local race, and there is even less in voting for a man you think will send us to heck, nationally and internationally, just a little more slowly than the other guy.
So for the presidential ticket I will write someone in. I’ll keep my final decision to myself, but on my short list is my favorite perennial candidate for Kentucky governor, the late Gatewood Galbraith, who is more alive dead than anyone else on the ballot. He knew, as I know, that we had a republic once. We were not able to keep it.
Hillsdale, Mich. For me the election is personal (the political is personal, right?). My biggest reason for voting for the president and returning him to office is that he is too young. I’ve always thought that Obama was too young to be president. He did not have enough of a track record in public life to imagine what he might be as chief execute. But I also think he is not old enough to retire. Where would Obama go from here? Back to community organizing? Hardly. We have had presidents who came from overseeing universities before occupying the Oval Office (Wilson from Princeton and Eisenhower from Columbia), but it doesn’t work the other way, so succeeding Drew Gilpin Faust at Harvard is out. The only official capacity that would seem to be fitting for the leader of the free world would be General Secretary of the United Nations. But that seems unlikely. This means we will be stuck with Obama making appearances, holding events at his presidential library, and betting on college basketball games for a long time (the rest of my life anyway). Why not get our money’s worth out of all those Secret Service officers who will follow the Obamas for the next three decades (at least) and have the president work for some of it by having him run the country for another four years?
But this quite reasonable justification for voting for Obama runs up against my feelings. Here I am confronted with my own vices as a citizen. Vicious though I may be, I have to confess that I do not like the people who cheer Obama on – I mean report on and analyze the campaign. Granted, not as many cheers have followed the president during this campaign. One of the ironies of 2012, in fact, was the way that Joe Biden had to energize a base that had been head-over-heels about Barrack Obama four years ago. Still, the president has had a lot of implicit support from the people who are supposed to be the smartest and most critical folks in the land – the press and professors. Listening to online banter among academics and listening to reports on NPR reveal that the kind of cynicism that characterized the press and professors’ reactions to Bush have virtually vanished from assessments of Obama. This doesn’t mean that journalists and academics were wrong to mistrust Bush. It does mean that they lost one of their most admirable features when an Obama-inspired tingle went down Chris Matthews’ leg. I should qualify that I like most journalists and academics because of their intelligence. But when they put their critical skills on hold to treat Obamacare or the CIA’s handling of Libya as if sincere and serious proposals, untinged by partisan politics or calculating the mood of the electorate, these smart folks lose the qualities that make them most enjoyable.
These considerations notwithstanding, the gravest reason I have for voting against Obama is to prevent the United States from becoming a country that will elect a man who represents a party that so brazenly supports abortion rights and gay marriage. I have not lost my smarts to think that a Romney administration will do much to change federal policy on abortion and I’m not that hopeful for a savvy proposal on gay marriage. But at least the GOP has appealed to a better (even if gullible) side of the American public. If Obama wins I fear his victory will signal that a majority of the American people (who vote anyway) no longer care protecting the unborn or the ways in which we rear the born. Sure, Obama may fail in some of his pro-choice and gay marriage policies. But a victory will mean that his pro-choice and gay marriage platforms were inconsequential in this election. For me that would represent a turning point in the history of this republic.
So I’ll vote for Romney, preferring a gradual to a more rapid collapse of those qualities that made the United States remarkable.
See Bill’s entry at The American Conservative.
Mark T. Mitchell:
Purcellville, VA. The first thing you need to know—something that has already been asserted by many—is that this is the most important election of our lifetimes. We’ve been on a roll for a while now, since I distinctly recall being told that the last presidential election was the most important of my lifetime. And the one before it. They just keep getting more important. Or at least that’s what the fundraisers and media-hypers would have us believe. It’s hard to raise millions or keep people glued to their screens if this is just another ho-hum election.
The thing I am most looking forward to on Tuesday is the fact that the whole tedious process will be over. Unless, of course, the election is too close to call or it is contested and then the whole affair will drag out even longer. While I am not generally one for adding new laws and regulations, I see the merits of forbidding any electioneering until after Labor Day. Isn’t two months of this stuff more than enough? Wouldn’t it be satisfying if Chuck Todd and all those pollsters had to get real jobs?
It is ironic, however, that the current state of our politics makes the Clinton years look pretty good. Remember those balanced budgets? Recall the surpluses that were used to pay down the debt? Welfare reform passed by a divided government? Oh, for the good old days. But I digress.
The choice before us is clear: on the one hand you can vote for an incumbent who seems disposed toward centralization of power and is optimistic that centralized government is the most just and most efficient way of dealing with a host of problems. He is a champion of individual liberty in areas of sexuality and reproduction, but he is a bit fuzzy when it comes to religious liberty if the religion in question balks at individual liberty in areas of sexuality and reproduction. He has, in the name of saving the American economy, run up the national debt to a degree that is simply beyond imagining and very likely beyond repayment. While his foreign policy is not well-defined (supporters would call it fluid while opponents call it limp, ill-formed, and naïve), he has to his credit avoided committing American troops to another costly attempt to impose American-style democracy on an unwilling people.
On the other hand, we have a candidate whose views on a wide-array of topics have evolved through his career and, indeed, throughout this campaign. It’s not easy to identify his core political beliefs; although, he has attempted to woo the Tea Party crowd with talk of shrinking the government. He likes to talk about freedom, American Exceptionalism, and he sings (badly) America the Beautiful. To his credit he seems not to have an ideological bone in his body. That is, except when it comes to foreign policy where he sounds disturbingly similar to the neo-cons who ran G.W. Bush’s elective wars.
While Romney will likely be better on the domestic side, Obama, for all his problems, has had the good sense to not bomb Syria or invade Iran. But despite these differences, does either candidate have the political will to make the hard decisions necessary to get us out of the economic hole we have dug? I suspect not. Does either candidate have the moxie to propose raising the retirement age or introduce means testing for social security? Is either one willing to look Americans in the eye and tell us that we’re all going to have to do with less government services and we will likely have to pay more to boot? I doubt it.
All of this leaves me in a quandary. I want Obama to lose, but I don’t really want Romney to win. I think an increasing number of Americans long for a viable third party, one that somehow breaks the monopoly held by the two major parties, both of which incestuously cavort with the unelected powers of Wall Street to the detriment of all but their cronies. Breaking the corporate/government nexus must be a priority. A third party may be part of the solution.
I will conclude with three suggestions:
1. Study history. This will foster a “long view” and inoculate you against those who insist that every election is the most important of your lifetime. This one is not. Or if it is, we won’t be able to determine that for many years, likely not until long after we are gone. Elections are serious, but they are not ultimate.
2. Ignore national politics or at least don’t focus on it above local and state politics. Our attention has increasingly become centered on Washington and this fosters a sense that Washington is all that matters. Much of what fuels the hype is our interest in the newest poll, the latest ad, or the talking heads endlessly pontificating on the meaning therein. Make it a point to ignore them.
3. If you can’t in good conscience vote for either of the two major candidates, don’t. Democracy is about expressing your preference. Too long we’ve consigned ourselves to the false choice of voting for the lesser of two evils. If we are satisfied with that dismal alternative, we’ll likely continue to get nothing better.
Politics Bar Jester Style
It was Dr. Johnson who said that patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel. No doubt he had in mind false patriotism, but by now that’s beside the point: there isn’t any other kind.
It took less than two hundred years for Neil Postman to come along and announce that voting is the last act of the citizen. No doubt he meant to indict our notion of citizenship, but (again) by now that’s beside the point: you don’t see very many people capable of the forms of citizenship that lead up to the last act we generally mistake for the primary (or only) one.
This is a country full of patriots and bereft of citizens. The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity. Who could watch coverage of a national convention, or who could watch coverage of this week’s election, and come to any other conclusion?
Those who for four years minus a day talk to their neighbors only through lawyers, and then for one day in 1,460 beam with pride for having participated in a free and open election, are neither patriots nor citizens. They are litigious atomistic cowards.
Those who for four years minus a day conduct their affairs with nary a concern for anything but the lowest price always, and then for one day in 1,460 pull levers for whichever party they think best serves the consumer in search of the lowest price always, are neither patriots nor citizens. They are gaping maws in Nikes.
Those who day in and day out complain about unemployment but continue to make unemployment—that is, weekends, vacations, and retirement—their national goal, and those who continue to ask black gold and Texas tea to exempt them from all actual work, including the work of getting from here to there, are neither patriots nor citizens. They are at best the abject dependents, and at worst the slaves, of whoever owns the dwindling supply of ancient sunlight.
What I mean to say is that we don’t have any business getting either misty-eyed or chesty about our participation in a democracy, least of all on election day, when we have so obviously defaulted on any meaningful form of freedom.
Saying this next bit won’t forestall the coming reprimands, but I’ll part with it anyway. I have no patience for those who make it their business to find out whether I’ve voted, and for whom. If, say, Jimmy Carter was the last man I felt I could in good conscience cast a vote for—he of the ill-starred presidency featuring sky-high interest rates and the Iran hostage crisis—then that, as Gatsby said, is my affair, and it denotes a freedom worth expressing: I’ll take a man honest enough to make a malaise speech. Otherwise, don’t expect me to implicate myself in the devil’s choice our major parties and the incurious thimble-witted news outlets serve up every four years. Liver and lima beans do not a pair of dinner options make.
And, while we’re at it, let us be clear about this: there is no party of life. The donkeys are given over to abortion on demand, but the elephants, who have pretty much controlled the government for about the last thirty years, have no intention of overturning Roe v. Wade. They’ve had too much success not doing anything about it while duping people into voting for them on the false promise that they will. Why do work you don’t have to do? This is politics, remember. Once the votes have been secured, Roe v. Wade does nothing to serve the party’s real intention, which is to collect as much power and revenue into as few hands as possible.
And, at any rate, in my book you must oppose abortion, war, and capital punishment to be pro-life. Otherwise you’re not pro-life. You’re confused.
If as a matter of conscience a man feels he must vote, that not voting is simply wrong, let him cast a vote for someone other than those mirror images the Republicans and Democrats stuff into their Brooks Brothers suits.
I am a Front Porch anarchist. I don’t have a dog in this week’s fight. It appears to me the country can go bankrupt in one of two ways: by bellicose foreign policy or by fat-assed nanny-state domestic policy. I’m not voting for a guy who makes millions but hardly pays any income taxes; I’m also not voting for a social engineer who thinks we should have birth-control in vending machines just outside the baptisteries. I invite Romney and Obama, each individually, to do something to himself that is both physically impossible and morally reprehensible.
And then, in an effort to cling to what little self-respect I’ve got left, I’m going to continue to talk to my neighbors, attempt to spend my money with my friends, and keep at the Sisyphean task of liberating myself from the extractive economy. The work of citizenship is not easy, but we should always be at it—if not during then certainly before and after we cast a meaningful vote.
Holland, MI. I can’t imagine any circumstance under which I could vote for Barack Obama. Back in 2008 I found his arrogance off-putting in the extreme, and it’s clearly been responsible for many of his problems as a President. The White House magnifies personality flaws, it doesn’t erase them. And I’ve never understood the claim he was a great orator: I find him wooden and expressionless, and his cadence deeply annoying.
All this might be tolerable if there were at least policies I could get behind. But he remains a national greatness, warmongering, power-hungry, centralizing, managerial plutocrat. And even if I did, his position on life issues and his hamfisted handling of the HHS mandate would be sufficient to kill the deal. Plus the thought of Joe Biden being a heartbeat away from the Presidency scares the hell out of me. The only reason Uncle Joe has gotten a pass is because the Republicans put forward an even scarier VP candidate in 2008.
So the question is whether I will resort to the default, which is to vote for Romney. I have no enthusiasm for the man. I don’t see a clear sense of purpose, and I don’t detect a strong core of political principles – at least, ones I can embrace. His Mormonism isn’t a deal killer for me, but neither is it an attraction. I don’t see him as being anything more than a national greatness, warmongering, power-hungry, centralizing, managerial plutocrat, but I’m reasonably certain that he’d be more hospitable to issues of religious freedom than has been Obama. That is of no small consequence.
We live in an imperfect world, and it is highly unlikely we will ever find a politician who lines up perfectly with our concerns. Politics involves choosing among competing goods, or sometimes less bads, being willing to put up with some bad so that good may result, and discerning the best possible outcome under the circumstances. I’m not keen on Gary Johnson, and even if I were voting for him is not a practical solution. It may make sense affectively, but makes little sense effectively. (In any case he is not on the ballot in MI). I am sort of inclined to Virgil Goode, but I can’t see practically speaking any way he can govern, even if he could win, given the vagaries of our party system. Perhaps it would send a message to the parties, but not one they’re particularly inclined to hear.
I have no illusion about the ability of either main party candidate to stem the tide of centralization and collectivization that characterizes contemporary politics. Along with an important complex of cultural issues I believe the central challenge for the next President will be taking a red pen to the federal budget. I don’t know how effective Romney will be at that, but I’m reasonably certain Obama will be ineffective. We are on an irresponsible path to fiscal disaster, and I’d prefer not to have someone who thinks “I am in blood Stepp’d in so far that, should I wade no more, Returning were as tedious as go o’er.”
Both parties engage in client-based politics, and both have a set of clients who make budget reform a virtual impossibility. Perhaps the only solution will be to drive over the cliff and start over, but it’s an irresponsible one and in any case not a pleasant one. But pleasant is not in our future, so I’ll begin this year by marking the unpleasant choice of the Republican candidate.
Perhaps more consequentially, I’ll be voting for state and local officials and on a series of ballot propositions. Prop 1 gives the state significant financial oversight power over local governments, thus taking autonomy away from local governments and empowering a state government that has been anything but fiscally sensible. The airwaves have been overriden with highly deceptive commercials concerning Proposal 2’s protection of collective bargaining rights. I have mixed feelings about this, but I swear there is no public group that annoys me more than firemen, to the point where if they want it then I know I’m against it. Proposal 5 would require a legislative supermajority for any tax increase. My guess is that this would make budgetary reform even more impracticable. Proposal 6 has been the most fun of any, for it deals with the construction of a new bridge connecting Windsor to Detroit. The current bridge is privately owned, and the owner has run one of the most disingenuous campaigns imaginable – replete, of course, with firemen. If for no other reason that’s good enough to get a “no” vote out of me.