I’ve had a number of students and young friends over the years tell me that voting didn’t matter to them, that it seems a futile exercise and an inconsequential bother they just couldn’t buy into. Their remarks have always flummoxed me, and my response has never seemed adequate. And, indeed, when one sees politics through the lens of the modern media — Trump Mania and flaming social media — voting does seem futile, if not at times absurd. But there’s a principle involved that I believe is still important, one that’s come to be more persuasive to me than the literal act of casting a single ballot.
The principle is best described by events last week. A 1,000-year deluge in Santa Fe swamped and flooded the capital with more than 3.5 inches of rain in a little over an hour, a textbook example of climate change-induced extreme monsoonal events. Power outages during the week, largely in Albuquerque’s North and South Valleys and around the University, were accompanied at times by satisfying, short, hard rains.
These circumstances are beyond the control of any individual and require us to depend on a vast network of other people, a social world that our puny selves cannot function without.
They also demonstrate the inadequacy of government to regulate and evolve public systems, an inadequacy mirrored by the incompetent tyrannies of corporate bureaucracy, inadequacies checked only by citizens acting in their multitudes on their own behalf though the political process. Every climate change event is a direct result of regulatory inaction in this country and around the world. Failures of the electric grid are directly caused by chronic shortfalls in public funding of alternative systems for electric generation and transmission.
The lights went out at our house, and everything but our ingenuity came to a dead silent stop. I don’t think I’ve ever been more aware of how artificial our lives really are, how dependent all of us are on networks of other people and their expertise and how helpless we are without them and the government that funds and regulates them for better or worse. It’s even truer for those Santa Feans who were blindsided by Monday night’s monsoon — which means almost everyone. Without the social network of specialists, companies, charities and public and emergency services, recovery from an out-of-the-blue storm like that would be impossible.
Virtually every part of the social network that will get Santa Fe cleaned up and running smoothly again, including private companies, is connected to the political process through regulation, labor law, taxes and tax loopholes, federal and state legislation, the judicial system and taxpayer funding that goes to the support of the power grid, the transportation grid, education and training on all levels and the multitudinous agencies that oversee (some better than others) virtually every public enterprise in every county, town, city and state in the nation. Just try to run a business without publicly funded and constructed roads and highways. Just try to do virtually anything without the power grid.
Maybe in days of yore, when civics was still a mandatory part of most public school curricula, young folks understood that they were part of a system of public services and public laws that made their individual freedoms and their personal “pursuit of happiness” possible.
So why is voting important, and why is it only a small, but vital, part of fulfilling one’s obligations to one’s community, the community upon which one’s very life depends? And what are other ways for citizens to participate in shaping their world and the laws and commerce that make it function?
Voting is important for three basic reasons. It activates the law of accumulation. It stimulates “life-long learning” about the witheringly complicated and intricate nature of the public world we live in, how it operates, how it breaks down and how it contributes to a healthy future or allows oppressions and dysfunctions to ruin lives. Voting also leads us to find other ways to interact with the powers that run our world and influence how the course of our lives will run.
The law of accumulation is wrapped up in the old saw, “You take care of the pennies, and the dollars will take care of themselves.” One little task at a time, one vote at a time by hundreds of millions, one sentence a day of a book, one dollar a day in a small interest-bearing account — they all add up to something that wasn’t there before. It is always better to do something positive, even if it seems doomed to failure, than to do nothing at all. That’s one of the reasons that despair, cynicism, indifference and pessimism are no good — they impede positive action and most importantly leave a vacuum, no matter how small, to be filled with negativity and apathy. Enough vacuums filled with what you fear, and you end up living in a fearful world. Voting means doing your part and assuming that everyone else will do theirs and that those in power will keep the process fair.
Without the engagement of voting — the participation in political parties, the association with other like-minded people, the productive disagreements, the necessity to understand proposed legislation and what it might imply — we have lost a prime catalyst of curiosity about the rhyme and reason of daily life. Without being politically engaged enough to vote, you’ll always be in the dark about a major part of your life — the social, technical and legal context of your world. Being in the dark, you’ll be completely dependent on what other people tell you because you’ll be lacking a fact-producing history of your own experience of thinking and acting on what you learn about the common world all of us share.
Finally, voting catalyzes other kinds of political action, ones that are practiced by big corporations, big donors and opponents of your point of view or those who are your potential allies. As long as things are still decided by votes in this country, and you come to recognize the reality of that fact, then influencing the people you elect to represent you to vote your way is a vital part in being politically effective. Small-time lobbying, like a single person can do with a phone call or a letter — if it is done intelligently and with social sensitivity — can have a persuasive influence far beyond a one-person, one-vote context. The power you have is exponentially linked to your knowledge of the legislation you support or oppose, the soundness of your reasoning, the compelling nature of your argument. Lobbying persuasively magnifies your vote many, many times over. Politicians might even listen to what you have to say and change their minds or adopt your line of reasoning and fold it into their own. They might assume your view was held by those in your social circle and see it magnified again many fold. You never know. It’s all in the luck of the draw and the quality of your participation. But if you don’t play, you have no chance at all.
Along with personal lobbying comes personal boycotting of products and companies that you find corrupt, or supporting ideas and policies that you find abhorrent. Trying to find who those companies are, however, could also lead you to have an opinion about the Supreme Court case known generally as “Citizens United,” which equates corporations with persons and their spending with free speech. Trying to find out which retail store opposes your point of view is made almost impossible by Citizens United, which acts as a blind, behind which the vastly rich can express themselves in dollars and cents, often supporting legislation that directly contradicts your best interests.
Living in a country like ours and not participating in its political life is not unlike living in a dangerous jungle but thinking it’s your living room. Not only are you useless to the processes that create the world you live in, but you are made almost comically vulnerable to its dangers by your own ignorance, a condition you could start to change with even a modicum of effort.
*Nullius in verba: take nobody’s word for it
(Image derived from “The Water is Rising” poster by Madeleine Witt for the AIGA Get out the Vote campaign)