Are you sure you should be voting??

Well, last time I promised comments on the election. I’m trying not to let these e-mail/blogs* become too much of an avenue for my personal political thinking, for I know many, many people I want to reach are never going to buy into my peculiarly liberal philosophy. So I’ll try to keep to general observations about how it seems to me these things work–or perhaps, ought to work.

One of the most encouraging results I noted was the defeat, in Arizona, of a ballot initiative that would have entered every voter into a lottery for a million dollars. I’ve no way of knowing how the pro vs. con campaign went, but I can hope most of those rejecting this particular initiative were beginning to become aware of the absurdity of one of our most pervasive political myths: that you should feel obligated to vote.

There are a number of valuable ideas associated with democracy which lend themselves easily to oversimplification in slogans. Unfortunately, important ideas rarely lend themselves well to slogans and this tendency to simplify often leads to perversion of the ideas themselves. That everyone should vote is almost certainly the most dangerously distorted bumper-sticker summary of a critical principle there is.

In a democracy, everyone should participate. But that is so different than saying everyone should vote, or that everyone should vote on every issue.

If you don’t know anything about an issue; if you haven’t a good idea of what a candidate stands for; if you virtually never follow politics–if, in a word, you are uninformed–you should not vote. And, believe me, if you only follow politics during the campaigns you are, at the very best, only very poorly informed. Participation in a democracy requires consistent, critical evaluation of political issues and politicians throughout the years, not merely in the run up to an election. Basically, it’s hard work.

I would never presume to vote for who the best team in the National League is or who should be the next baseball commissioner. I wouldn’t do it even if there were a six month campaign for my support and a very elaborate infrastructure to assure I could cast a ballot. I don’t follow the sport, so why would I think my vote should be weighed?

For someone like me, based on some public relations campaign to convince me of one team’s superiority over another to vote on the issue would be absurd. Worse yet, who am I to have input into the question of who is most suited to make administrative decisions regarding baseball’s future?

At least I don’t follow baseball any better than many avid sports fans follow politics. Yet avid, exclusive, sports devotees–by which I mean to say sports devotees who spend less time reading political stories in the paper than I do sports–and far less time thinking about what those stories actually said than I ever do with sports stories–are almost shamed into voting on who the best politicians are and even exactly how the government should be spending its resources.

The only real difference is that sports decisions are essentially inconsequential and political decisions are often matters of life and death to many (usually uninfluential) people, almost always involve large amounts of public funds, and frequently make the people willing to pay for the ads that convince the public to vote for or against an issue very, very rich.

Please, inform yourselves politically, and then vote. But if you aren’t informed about an issue or a politician, please don’t vote on it/him/her. And give up the idea that you can be informed by a crash course during the campaign–it definitely takes somewhat close, continuous attention to the actual play, not just the color commentary you get from many “opinion makers” (We talked “talk radio” last time, didn’t we?).

I’m not trying to bash sports fans here, by the way. Sports is just one of the thousands of ways people can spend their leisure time. Any of those can become as demanding of our time, energy, and attention as any other. Mainly I’m using sports as an example because the devotion I give to politics is similar to the devotion many sports fans give to sports, and vice versa. It’s clearly possible to do both at once, or one vigorously while also doing the other adequately. And these other diversions can obviously make as great a pull for your attention as can sports. Other common competitors are sexuality, profession, celebrity worship, religion, consumerism, family, and participatory sports or philosophies. The list is long and, in many cases, quite venerable.

But the point is not about how diversionary time is spent, it is about whether adequate time is also spent participating in the democracy whose success depends upon an informed electorate. If you’re not up to putting in that kind of energy, you’re vote won’t help so much as hurt.

Another dangerous myth that pervades politics is the idea that “voting the man, not the party” is something to be proud of. That a sucker’s choice. These are vast organizations. Blaming (or crediting) George W. Bush for current policies of the United States, unless you are speaking in the most obviously symbolic sense, merely displays a misunderstanding of how large organizations work. The leader may, in fact, have major influence on the direction the ship is taking, but it has its own momentum and there are thousands and thousands of people turning the knobs and wheels that make it move and set its speed. Vote Republican, or vote Democratic, or, in our current system, throw your vote away, but don’t fool yourself into thinking a vote for a nominee for one of the parties will get you the policies of another, and especially not of the other.

Okay, so those last two paragraphs open up a whole bunch of bags of worms, and this missive is already running on. I have more to offer on the election, but I’ll stop now, hopefully to revisit some of these ideas soon.

One advantage of viewing a blog is the ability to interact with it. Why not go to the comment section and share your thoughts with whoever might be out there also reading this? For one thing, it would be nice to know that someone is reading this. Let’s talk!

*If you’d like to get these as e-mail, just drop a note to gwdrake@to-mars.org

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