"We do not learn from experience, we learn from reflecting on experience." -John Dewey
Today I’m spending over four hours at the Davidson County Elections Commission for a refresher course on handling special voters: those who changed their address, failed to register, or didn’t bring their photo ID. I get paid $30 to be here, but I already spent that on the cost of transportation to and from class. Really, I’m in the hole for a few dollars.
I’m also a volunteer with Headcount, a non-partisan voter registration organization that hangs out at music venues and gets wayward citizens involved in the democratic process. The last time I volunteered for a concert at the Cannery Ballroom, downtown Nashville, I met a few people under 21 (judging by the X’s on their hands) who told me, “Nah, I don’t vote,” and “Nothing less than revolution!” as they disappeared into a crowd of people with the same haircut.
Why do I do these things?
The real issue, of course, is not the personal cost and frustration of supporting our democracy. The real issue involves the very quality of our democracy. As it turns out, I probably have a lot more in common with those emo kids who turn me down at concerts than they would suspect.
The Case for Cynicism
For one, we have a two-party, winner-takes-all system of government. Red and blue, that’s pretty much all you get. Not to mention the financial requirements of our political campaign system means both parties are deeply indebted to big donors, many of whom contribute huge sums to both parties and/or have very similar interests. The criticism that Republicans and Democrats are two sides of the same coin has become very resonant this past decade, at least.
And if inter-party politics wasn’t depressing enough, the 2016 presidential election gave rise to in-party bias among Democratic elites. The party establishment had a vested interest in promoting Hillary Clinton, and the media establishment followed suit. Although I don’t know of evidence that says the nomination was “stolen” from Bernie Sanders through a massive, coordinated and conspiratorial effort, those rumors will not die and for good reason.
Moving on, here in the state of Tennessee we rely on easily hackable electronic voting machines with no paper trail. In August before the presidential election, CBS news (here) released an interview with a Symantec securities expert who explained several ways that voting machines and their results could be manipulated. A Princeton professor has also gained some notoriety from hacking a machine in seven seconds and crusading for better security (here). Although hackable voting machines hardly constitutes evidence of hacked elections, the deadly combo of insecure systems and groups motivated to swing elections at any cost should give you pause.
Speaking of motivated groups, let’s throw the Koch brothers into the mix. Although the Koch brothers rank right up there with Monsanto and paramilitary groups when it comes to folks shunned by progressives, Nashville lefties have special cause for concern. This spring 2018 we had a general referendum on a mass transit plan. According to a NY Times article (here), early polling predicted that it would pass with ease, and possibly create an alternative to the increasingly suffocating traffic that clogs our streets and highways at rush hour and after major concerts and sporting events (of which there are many). Enter the Americans for Prosperity, a Koch-sponsored organization with grassroots credentials that helped to convince Nashvillians to go the other way. “No tax for tracks” won out in the end.
Moving on, the 2013 Supreme Court decision to strike down key parts of the Voting Rights Act is also cause for concern. The reasoning behind the majority decision? Justices said that these provisions had been outgrown. We simply don’t need them anymore. We are a better society now than we were when it was necessary to protect marginalized people from being turned away at the polls. Well, yes and no. Let’s look at my state.
Tennessee is a state with photo ID requirements on election day. This might seem like an innocuous gesture to prevent voter fraud, but it’s not. Unfortunately, the people most affected by these laws are minorities and low-income people, and politicians know that. I’ve seen at least two Republicans confess on camera that new voter ID laws were a key part of their strategy to elect more conservatives (John Oliver did a bit on this, and check out the article in The Daily Beast here). Furthermore, the Washington Post published an article (here) in 2014 whose title says it all: “A comprehensive investigation of voter impersonation finds 31 credible incidents out of one billion ballots cast.”
Sadly, there’s more. Conservative efforts to limit early voting periods comes to mind, but I don’t want to create the illusion that Republicans are the only, or even the worst inhibitors to our democracy. Both parties gerrymander, that is re-write voting districts to give them the biggest electoral advantage when they’re in power. And again, the collusion between monied interests and establishment politics is probably the biggest sin of the American commons, originator of so many more sins. Pay to play is a reality here, and both parties are at fault.
So why bother?
With all this to consider, why would any informed person deign to participate in a political process that’s flawed to its very core? Why would I spend my hard-earned money and even-more-valuable time going here and there to prop up a system that actively strives to disenfranchise me and people who look like me?
It’s kind of like Pascal’s wager, really. In seventeenth-century France, Blaise Pascal justified a belief in God with the following logic: If you do believe in God and there’s no such thing, well, you die and nothing happens; but if you don’t believe in God and you’re wrong, you could be setting yourself up for an eternity of fiery damnation. Pascal was a mathematician; it’s all a simple cost-benefit and risk analysis.
I don’t think this is a very compelling plea for deism, but apply this to politics. Participating in the process is not a statement of support for political business-as-usual. On the contrary, it’s an insurance policy. Participate when it doesn’t really matter, and you lose some time and effort, maybe a few bucks for transportation; fail to participate when it does matter and you’ve surrendered your voice, consented to be ruled by the mob, and arguably forfeited your right to complain.
But there are even better reasons to stand up and give a shit. These reasons have everything to do with the fact that even as postmodern irony and cynicism have a firm grasp on our culture, to hope for the best and to dedicate oneself to an earnest set of values will always be the only antidote to stagnation, pessimism and self-fulfilling prophecies of doom and gloom.
While it’s cool to see through the hype, pass behind the curtain in Oz and mock the faithful for believing without evidence, it’s still true that a sincere dedication to bringing about a better world is always more edifying, and more humanizing, than an iron-willed cynicism. It takes an optimistic backbone for Elon Musk to launch a car into space and threaten to drag a fossil-fuel addicted country into a renewable, high-tech future. It took faith in the system for Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to oust a favored incumbent and rising-star Democrat out of a New York district where he didn’t even live, to make way for an avowed Democratic Socialist fighting for medicare for all. It’s optimism at the heart of ongoing measures to bring Ranked Choice Voting to the States: a system that could challenge our two-party winner-takes-all conundrum. Optimists are also spending millions to contest the power of the Electoral College, a body that has repeatedly awarded elections to the loser of the popular vote.
Most if not all of these people will have their dreams of a better society come down to a struggle at the ballot box, and if you’re too much of a cynic to get registered than you’re a bigger part of the problem than the scores of people who will turn out in opposition (usually because they’re too cynical to believe that government can do anything right). But … but what about those hackable voting machines and photo ID laws and gerrymandering and this and that and the other??
There will always be reasons why it’s difficult, even near-impossible to make a positive change. There will always be risks. The higher you rise, the more people will come out of the woodwork to try and bring you down. Absurdity may actually define the human condition, and perhaps everything we do won’t really matter. But what if it does? If you are able to work for a better society, than you probably should.