Super Tuesday 2016: Voting as an Act of Membership?

 “In the here-and-now, I vote—but always with a torn heart. I have not yet met a candidate or a political proposal that embodies all that I dream for…” -Steve Garber in “Making Peace with Proximate Justice”

My undergraduate degree is in political science, and I once imagined making a life for myself in Washington, D.C. During those years — thanks to a last-minute roommate gift and generous hospitality from a high school friend — I even attended a presidential inauguration. So it may come as a surprise that I haven’t voted in the past two presidential elections.

When I made those choices, I was well-aware of the indignation around me. “That’s pathetic, a person with your education,” one friend insisted. “It’s your civic duty!”

“Dude, you don’t appreciate your freedoms,” another chimed in.

Then, my personal favorite: “What if everyone was as apathetic as you?!”

I felt like I was sitting through a high-school government class or something with classmates launching the old cliché: if you don’t vote, you lose your rights to complain. But the truth is, my first instance of not voting was (mostly) an accident. I had been strolling in a park on a warm Saturday morning in Jacksonville, Florida, a few weeks away from the 2008 election. I noticed a table with several twenties types wearing blue Obama pins. In front of their table, a sign read “Register to Vote!” I was registered back in Indiana, but didn’t really want to navigate absentee process. And besides, here was my chance to vote in a swing state.

“I’d like to register,” I said, helping myself to a pen.

“Great,” said a woman behind the table. “Are you going to vote for Obama?”

I paused. Call me naïve, but I hadn’t expected her to be so direct. “Umm, I haven’t decided yet,” I said, telling half the truth. I certainly didn’t plan to vote for John McCain, but I was seriously considering writing in Ron Paul’s name on the ballot.

Instead I received a note in the mail that there had been a “problem” with my registration paperwork. By then, it seemed obvious that Obama was going to win anyway, so when all my teacher friends rushed to the polls that Tuesday after school, I headed home. And it all felt so strangely liberating. I didn’t even watch the returns, but I still woke up the next day to the same headlines as everyone else about Obama’s landslide victory. Four years later, I was in Northern Ireland when Obama got re-elected, and it just seemed all too easy not to vote again.

Now, I can still hear the “apathy” echo quite loudly, and I can’t ignore it. It’s not like I think voting is bad or wrong, and in fact I want to be the kind of person who votes more often than not. I suppose it is a privilege that we have some say as to who we elect in the United States. But is it really as simple as voting is good and not voting, bad? What about those who — without thinking or even knowing who’s on the ballot — just pull the straight ticket lever every time? Or what about the single-issue voters? Depending on the year, they could potentially vote in an election based on an issue that’s barely even on the agenda. It also seems fairly obvious to me that a large percentage of the electorate are simply emotionally clinging to or reacting against the political perspectives of their parents. Are these decisions really morally superior to not voting at all? I doubt it.

It seems like the last fifty years of American politics reveal an interesting tread: vote in one party until we are fully disgruntled with it, then try the other one for a while, then repeat. It also seems like a legitimate question of whether or not the “Republicrats” of our two-party system really give us that much of a choice. Aren’t both sides just as much in bed with Corporate America and the spending machine and the Industrial War Complex as the other? The best I can tell, neither side seems real committed to the problems I am most concerned about.

Vote for a third-party candidate, you might say. Or write someone in. And I grant that it’s an option worth considering. And yet, all Americans know that voting for third party candidates will not result in that person’s victory. In some instances, it actually helps the person who is farthest away from you politically (think back to the role Ralph Nadar played in Bush’s 2000 victory).

In all this, I think about how “all politics are local.” If we think about politics the way Aristotle did — that we are all participants in a polis — isn’t voting simply one of many important civic acts? Aren’t we acting just as politically by choosing a restaurant or in which stores to shop? By choosing to grow our own food or buy it from Walmart? By choosing what transportation to use? By embracing or limiting the debt we take on? By attending school board meetings? By coaching our kid’s little league team? By knowing (or not knowing) our neighbors? Do not all of these decisions affect our lives as much or more than punching a ballot once every few years?

Any consistent reader of mine knows that one of my intellectual, political, ecological, and spiritual influences is a Kentucky writer and farmer named Wendell Berry. I am drawn to Berry for his vision of wholeness. In his fiction, he writes about communal living as membership. One of his memorable essays is called “Health is Membership.” To be healthy and whole, to participate, to be implicated: these are as good of reasons as I have found to vote.

Berry resists the opportunism of issues and events and plans that will draw all sorts of attention today and then whither away tomorrow. Instead, he has spent his life committing to things that matter, that have a chance at lasting: his marriage, his land, his writing craft, his town. Pit that up against candidates who travel as they do for a couple days at a time into states and cities and places they mostly don’t know and spout off what is usually more slogan than substance. I am so skeptical as they each cast the vision that voting for him or her is the “moral” thing to do, and that if we don’t elect him or her, America will finally plummet full-scale into Hell.

And yet, I can’t get away from listening to it altogether either, because I do care, I do feel implicated in humanity and the way this all turns out. Politics matter, whether we want them to or not. And so does voting. Although Indiana doesn’t vote on Super Tuesday, I do intend to vote this time around, both in the primaries and the election in November. I’m sure that has something to do with being closer myself to being able to commit to things and to the place in which I live. At this point, I can’t really imagine voting for Trump or Hillary — this old essay in Front Porch Republic seems pretty prophetic by the way — but if these really are my options, maybe I’ll get motivated to watch the debates. Or if a write-in and voting in the local elections is the best I can do, well then I guess that’s the best I’ll do.

  • Lynn Dollarhide

    You really haven’t watched any of the debates yet? You missed the best reality tv dog and pony show in years. You should also visit each candidate’s website and read their platform positions and means of achieving those goals (that is assuming they have anything more than talking points.) Two other points: you will never find a candidate that you agree with 100% and you can really make a LOT of difference in your local elections.

    • Hi Lynn, and thanks for responding. No, I didn’t watch any of the primary debates 🙂 Gotta admit, I don’t really regret that ha. I do feel quite aware that I’ll never find the perfect candidate, but I am with you: it’s certainly worth voting if only for the local candidates/elections!