Civics for Cynics

How to distinguish between healthy frustration with the political process, and arrogant, selfish, laziness

To start with: a less-than-four-minute video from Trae Crowder explaining why we should vote. I’m posting not because I’m necessarily a huge fan of Crowder,1He’s totally playing up that accent, right? but because this is the simplest and most direct incentive to vote, and it doesn’t require any arguments about selfishness or civic responsibility: if voting weren’t important, there wouldn’t be so many people trying to stop you from doing it.

Even if you’ve managed to convince yourself that the system is rigged by “the establishment,” and that voting doesn’t change anything, you can’t deny that there are blatant attempts at voter suppression happening in Georgia and Texas. (If you do deny that, you’re either out of touch or gullible, either of which is a liability if you’re going for “disaffected free thinker.”)

There are plenty more substantial reasons, too. I started writing this in response to a link I saw via Alan on Micro.blog, where some guy describing himself as an “entrepreneur and angel investor”2Unironically describing himself like that, as far as I can tell! complained about how mean people are always “vote-shaming” him even though it’s his right not to vote, and he followed it up with a list of attempted to justifications. It was quickly obvious there was no point in it, since that post is hot garbage, and there’s nothing to be gained in trying to make a point-by-point rebuttal of something that’s rooted in nothing but arrogance and selfishness.

Instead of that, I’m more interested in talking to people who’ve had the same frustrations with and disillusionment the state of politics (especially in the United States) that I have.

Because there have been a lot of times in the past that I’ve been so frustrated with and disappointed in the political process that I’ve been tempted to just drop out entirely. Or at best, to treat voting as an empty gesture with no real effect. There’ve been an awful lot of those moments this year. Back when Elizabeth Warren dropped out of the race, and it became clear that the primary was going to come down to a choice between white men in their 70s. And more recently when it’s seemed like the Biden campaign was undermining the message that Biden the candidate was trying to get across — taking a message of direct, honest talk and a pledge to listen to Americans; and then surrounding it with fear-mongering campaign ads and a non-stop barrage of automated texts and emails with misleading claims about poll numbers and fundraising.

My point is that there’s nothing special about being disillusioned by the system. When the call to vote is described only in terms of hope and change and civic responsibility, it can come across as naive faith in a system that’s demonstrably broken. But I believe there’s a way to restore trust in the system’s ability to fix itself: to challenge all your frustrated assumptions about the process, so they aren’t allowed to fester and metastasize into self-absorbed inaction.

It’s impossible for me to feel any sympathy for an American who chooses not to vote in this particular election. The stakes are simply too high. But for anybody who’s not making it a priority, or only votes in the “big” races and not midterms, or even anybody who’s already voted but is pessimistic that it was worth it: I get it, and here’s what keeps me motivated.

Proposition 8

I’ll start by mentioning California Prop 8, since I can’t overstate how profoundly that changed the way I think about voting. The night before the election, I was another middle-class white guy living in a system where pretty much everything was designed to, at a minimum, keep me comfortable, if not lavishing me with success. The night of the election, I had my right to get married taken away from me.

It’s also difficult to describe the feeling of uncertainty and paranoia that took over after that. Every social interaction with people on the street or in shops, I had to wonder: did you vote against me? And it’s different from the normal low-grade paranoia that every LGBT person goes through, because this was government-sanctioned bigotry. The “system” had declared that this was a topic about which reasonable adults were permitted to disagree, like tax rates, or zoning laws.3In my home state, the margin was even worse, since around 75% of Georgians voted for their marriage ban. Meaning that it was statistically probable that all my ex-classmates on Facebook who pleaded for tolerance had voted to make it so I couldn’t get married.

As the election results came in, I felt the bottom drop out and felt my faith in society drain away. It wasn’t just resentment at the people who voted for the ban, but resentment at all the people who didn’t bother to vote, who knew what was happening but did nothing to stop it.

Putting it in terms of “it’s different when it happens to you” makes it sound completely selfish — and it is, to some degree — but I believe it’s more profound than that. I’d always voted for liberal candidates and causes wherever I could, so it didn’t change how I voted. But it changed why I voted. It made me recognize that the things I could vaguely abstract away as “the right thing to do” were often of crucial importance to someone, and could have repercussions that ripple out for years.

Short version: Someday, the rights of a minority will never again be subjected to majority vote. Until then, give homosexuality a try, if you want to get a sense of what marginalized people go through.

“It’s my right not to vote”

Yeah, no shit. I want to get this one out of the way first, because it’s not a statement; it’s a tantrum. In the US in particular, we’ve got to stop humoring people who try to excuse selfishness and irresponsibility in terms of “personal freedom.” Responsibility is the whole reason you’ve got personal freedom in the first place. Grow up.

Short version: Adult society is as much about your responsibilities as it is about your freedom. Be an adult.

“My vote doesn’t matter, because we already know who will win in my state”

Everyone in California has felt, at one time or another, that their vote didn’t matter. Even more in the Bay Area, where we’re frequently entreated to contact our representatives about legislation, when it’s our representatives who wrote the legislation in the first place.

The most obvious problem is the electoral college, which is garbage and clearly has to go. (I used to entertain arguments that it was a controversial issue, but it becomes clear with the barest minimum of thought that there’s no democratic reason for it to exist. Even if you don’t believe that the only reason it exists was a racist concession to slave-owning states). A sure way to do that is to vote for candidates who are opposed to the electoral college. Several Democrats are talking about either removing it or disabling its outsized influence on American politics, and you know they’re sincere, because Democrats have a vested interest in getting rid of it.

Really, the only reason the whole notion of “red states” and “blue states” exists at all is to make life easier for pundits and candidates. We’ve seen over and over again that most states are some shade of purple. Still, the only voters who get any attention are the ones in “battleground” states, and candidates don’t even bother trying to appeal to the most populous states. If we don’t emphasize that that is inherently undemocratic, then we let it become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

I’ve already seen early reports that higher voter turnout in Georgia might cause it to flip from red to blue, which is something that I’d never have expected to see again in my lifetime. And here in California, the growing progressive dissatisfaction with seemingly locked-in representatives like Speaker Pelosi and Senator Feinstein means that their next races (if they do run again) aren’t guaranteed. Voting often seems like the slowest and least direct way to bring about change, but things can change.

Short version: The electoral college sucks, but that doesn’t mean you don’t vote. It means you should vote for candidates who want to get rid of it.

“My vote doesn’t matter, because one vote doesn’t make a difference”

Even without the electoral college, it can seem like our individual votes are going to be effectively ignored, because there’s already so much support or opposition that the result is already determined before Election Day.

One response to this that I often see is a reminder that local races in particular often have very close margins, that can come down to a few hundred or even a few dozen votes. Which is true.

But I’d say the larger, overarching response to that is “Yeah, that happens. Get over it.” Your vote isn’t just about what you want. We’re conditioned to believe that it is, because we always hear that “our vote is our voice,” and we hear every two-to-four years that our vote will bring about change. Having to settle for slow, collective compromise and decision-making doesn’t feel satisfying.

We want to be making direct change. But even if the vote doesn’t go “your way,” your vote will help indicate whether it was a landslide or a close call. Knowing that an election was close can incentivize people to try and undo the new policy, or run against the unpopular candidate.

And don’t discount the difference in mindset that comes from knowing the actual numbers. The most obvious example these days: people keep pointing to the most recent egregious bullshit from the Trump administration and lazily saying “I can’t believe 50% of America supports this!” We know that 50% of Americans didn’t support this, because not only did Trump lose the popular vote — by the largest number of votes in history — but only 56% of eligible voters showed up to vote. So maybe about 25% of America supports this, if they even care. And that doesn’t even include voters like Susan Collins, who are perfectly willing to enable it but want it to be clear that they’re very concerned about it. Whenever I get depressed that there are still so many people willing to support Trump, it cheers me up to remember that there are so many more who don’t.

Short version: Your vote isn’t just about what you want, it’s about what’s best for everyone. And even when you don’t get the outcome you wanted, you’ve still helped send a message about what’s important to you.

“I Don’t Like Either Candidate”

Hey, I voted for John Kerry. I know what it’s like to have to convince yourself you’re making a difference, while you’re casting a vote for a candidate who seems to have made little effort to address anything you care about. He was the candidate the Democratic Party wanted.

I’m not even going to entertain the bullshit idea that there’s no substantive difference between the candidates or parties in this Presidential election. And a note to well-meaning liberals: anyone who tries to pass off this bullshit idea as being “moderate” is just wasting your time, and you need to move on. For some reason, the media loves to give undue attention to dipshits like Ken Bone. Maybe it’s intended to reassure voters that they have the power to make change, but all it actually does is perpetuate an already over-sized sense of self-importance about the power of any one single vote.

I’ve said it before (and I’m certainly not the first one to come up with it) but any process of choosing one person to represent the needs of over three and a half million people is going to require some significant compromise. It can be a drag to feel like you’re giving tacit approval to every negative thing a candidate is guilty for, but that’s not what you’re doing. You’re part of a collective decision to do the most good for the most people.

“Elections involve compromise” usually comes across as begrudging acceptance, but I wish we were able to feel as excited about being part of something huge as we were about being the hero of the story. Nothing’s stopping us from actively participating in causes we care about and promoting the candidates we’re enthusiastic about. Voting in an election that affects hundreds, thousands, or millions is about thinking beyond ourselves.

Short version: No really, your vote isn’t just about what you want. Don’t think of it as your choice, but your responsibility to everyone else.

“A vote for the establishment is a vote for the status quo”

I’m hopeful that especially after this year, we have a better understanding of how deep our problems are as a country, and how long we’ve spent trying to sweep them under the rug, or treat incremental progress as if we’d fixed everything.

But incremental progress is still progress. We shouldn’t mistake it for satisfaction and complacency, but we definitely shouldn’t mistake it for failure, either.

There’s no denying that the current system doesn’t represent all of us. That’s not just liberal disgruntlement; it’s statistically provable, comparing representatives’ voting records with polls of their constituents. Before the ridiculousness of the last five or six years, it’s felt like the two major parties are just racing each other to the center, with the Democrats settling to become Republican Lite.

Even if I were cynical enough to think that there’s never been a substantive difference between the parties, we’ve been able to see significant changes just over the last cycle. Progressives forced the Democrats to push themselves slightly to the left and acknowledge things that centrists always considered too hot to touch. Promising to address climate change and health care in particular became basic table stakes for candidates to even get taken seriously. And on the right, the Tea Party pushed Republicans to give up entirely on the idea of governance, set the bus on fire, and drive it off a cliff.

Short version: Change is possible. You’re seeing it happen right now. It doesn’t happen with just an election; the election is the start.

“We need a viable third party”

Yeah, we do. Ranked choice voting for every office would make that possible. With the current system, every vote for a third party and every non-vote is a vote for the worst candidate, no matter how many times “conscientious objectors” try to insist that’s not the case.

We’ve already got several Democratic candidates being outspoken about election reform. I haven’t personally heard any serious talk about proportional voting, but it’s a topic that comes up so often, that it’ll have to be part of the discussion, sooner or later.

That’s not the system we have right now, though. And while it has the potential to improve representation and put an end to the kind of dysfunction that hamstrung the second Obama administration, until it allows for 375 million parties, it’s still going to require some sense of civic responsibility. It’s no coincidence that the only third parties that have managed to make any significant showing at all in American politics since the Whigs, are the Green Party and the Libertarians. The one thing they have in common is that they both tend to attract people who feel that they know better than everyone else.

Short version: Until we have ranked choice voting for everything, we’re stuck with picking the best out of two parties. The best way to get ranked-choice voting is to campaign and vote for candidates who support it, or policy changes that implement it.

“The system is rigged”

There’s so much money involved in elections that it’s easy to feel like there’s nothing left but who’s got the most money. I find it encouraged to be reminded that no matter how over-sized their influence on the candidates is, Jeff Bezos and Mark Zuckerberg’s votes still count for exactly as much as mine.4Plus someone else’s, of course. You get the idea.

We’ve already seen that there’s no such thing as a business that’s too big to fail. They collapse when people stop buying what they’re selling. It seems impossible, but it really is as simple as that.

Voting for change at the national level requires trusting that there are people involved who genuinely care about justice and government. And if you need a more cynical take, for this election in particular, just ask yourself why a man who’s already famous and a multi-millionaire, who’s got a healthy income from speaking appearances, would take a pay cut to take the most stressful job in the world in his 70s?

Short version: The people who love money more than anything else wouldn’t be spending so much of it trying to sway or suppress or influence your vote, if they didn’t worry that your vote was a threat.

Finally

Obviously, someone who doesn’t have the time or inclination to read through a voter’s guide isn’t going to take the time to read through this. So I guess I’m mostly trying to remind myself that the system is deeply flawed but still salvageable. And that some of the things I’m tempted to think of as flaws are actually part of what makes the system work for everyone.

Ultimately, it all comes down to having the humility to recognize that it’s not all about you, and having trust and faith that societies can collectively make decisions for the benefit of all. We’ve all had our trust and faith abused for years. We’ve seen how quickly a message of genuine hope for progress got turned into one of complacency. But I still believe that holding onto trust and faith is better than just giving up and letting ourselves slide backwards.