Voting periodically becomes an issue even for a conscientious non-voter, usually during election years. Election years happen.
On the day of the last election, a former acquaintance -- I'll call her Tracy -- was shocked to learn that I was not going to vote. "What kind of an American are you?" she sputtered, obviously exasperated, and rapidly issued a volley of similar hasty remarks. Tracy plainly felt it was my "civic duty as an American citizen" to vote, regardless what obligations my conscience might bid me to honor. Tracy seemed unconcerned with the implications of her dictum that "free" Americans should feel obliged to prove good citizenship by voting, even when they find it objectionable -- or believe it might imperil their freedoms. Nor did Tracy express polite interest in my reasons, but 'blasted away' at me as if by sheer reflex.
As an American, I think it is my obligation not to be a "good citizen," but to make every possible effort to be an exceptional individual -- rather than offering my allegiance to the mighty Goliath, I'd prefer to be the redoubtable David. Rather than 'being accountable' to those in government, I hold them accountable to me as a citizen -- the 'civic duty' of any servant to the people, as was once widely recognized and now is seldom uttered but with a wink and a sneer by USA politicians. The State isn't Santa Claus, and I'm not Rudolph.
More importantly, perhaps, I feel it is my obligation not to rush to judgment over fellow citizens' affairs or politics but to attend instead to my own: Not to be the obedient citizen but an independent thinking American and conscientious neighbor. State sycophants may be 'good citizens' but are treacherous and undesirable neighbors -- Nazi Germany; Stalin's Soviet Union; Mao's China. "Mind your business" Americans had very different dreams.
I'm not Tracy's kind of American, apparently.
Frankly, I've struggled mightily at times with the decision not to vote -- when it means not voting for a friend, someone I think highly of, or a candidate I might wish to see win at least a substantial show of support. It's my responsibility to determine what is right for me, so I do. You may or may not agree with me in regard to voting, but if you and I agree to respect our differences it's a moot issue between us. If you can't concede an individual non-voter's (or voter's) right to choose, would you deprive her of that liberty? Others too?
Perhaps I should have told Tracy, "I'm not the sort of American who wants to lord it over others politically, socially, economically, or militarily, either here or abroad. I'm not the sort of American who wants to vote myself largesse out of the public treasury, despite the fact that I may be forced to contribute to it. Maybe I'm not the sort of American you like or approve of, and if so, maybe you should thank me for not voting." (At least, when the authorities come to deport recalcitrant citizens to love-it-or-leave-it-land, wherever that is, they won't have a handy-dandy voter registration form to speedily identify and track down "free" Americans like me for non-compliance with obligatory voting procedures.)
Perhaps I should have told Tracy, "I'm not the sort of American who believes in casting a 'protest vote,' which I'd consider a contradiction in terms -- my voting at all, for anyone, would nullify the point, which is 'no confidence' in the political system. The rational way for me to protest the rotten political establishment is by not voting. Not even for any one party, any one candidate, any single issue -- it means not voting, period, finis."
Awkwardly, this unanticipated exchange with Tracy had taken place as she was on her way out the door, to vote -- I was caught quite off my guard. Afterward, I found myself stewing about her snide remarks and, of course, what I might have said in turn but didn't. Tracy enjoyed a tiff with a male conservative over the election outcome, too -- all in good fun? "This is what politics does to people," I noted; it doesn't seem to bring out their best.
When the subject came up again a day or so later, I'd had time to collect my wits. I asked Tracy who she thought was most capable of determining her individual interests, and whom she believed should run her life?
She looked thoughtful for a moment, and then said, "God." That seemed ironic: George W. Bush was rumored at the time to be receiving divine guidance, but she wanted Kerry to win the election. Naturally, I'd expected her to say, "Me!" as I suspect (and hope) most people would. Hmm. I queried her again, and was somewhat taken aback by her second response … Tracy conceded that she was the best-qualified person to run her life but that there had to be someone "over her:" 'Someone to run the world,' was the gist of her reply.
After a moment of contemplation the 'aha' light bulb flickered on for me. "Your reasons for voting seem legitimate, then," I said, "but that does not make them legitimate for me." I'm not sure what she thought of that, as the conversation trailed off for some reason.
In retrospect, I find it interesting that someone who would put God in charge of her own life affairs might feel it desirable to elect politicians to run the world's. Or maybe Tracy believes that people in political office do God's work -- but if so, why would she, or I, or any human being, need to elect them? I don't honestly know if in her mind there existed a special relationship between God and government, or if she simply dared not trust God to run the lives of other people, as she would her own . . . her response asserted that she felt government was necessary, even over herself. Where precisely God appeared in Tracy's hierarchical conception of things wasn't clear, at least in relation to government, but I'm sure her answer was sincere -- I by no means think Tracy is a "bad person," just that like so many people, she's got opinions and is prone to forgetting that's exactly what they are.
Later, I asked Tracy if she had ever volunteered for a political campaign . . . she said she hadn't. I suggested she might try it, sometime, to see how that sausage is made. I have in the past worked diligently on behalf of libertarian political campaigns and initiatives; I still respect and admire those candidates and many of the dedicated volunteers I worked with. However, it gradually dawned on me that political activism fostered the mindset of minding "Other People's Politics" -- activists can become so obsessed with "getting the message out" that they lose sight of precisely what that message is, or may fail to notice when unintended message creep subtly sets in. Maybe some can't hear themselves think or talk clearly? Can people become infatuated with a mission, with a group, or a party?
There's a sense of camaraderie that evolves among a political staff or a volunteer group, and that's one reason so many people join, or stay involved: a sense of unity of purpose, despite the occasional quibbles on policy. It's like joining a church group, hobby club, or community association, for social purposes. Political organization seems insidious in its similarities to religion -- when one surrounds oneself with other believers, one gradually loses the impetus to question one's beliefs or actions. One becomes too deeply invested in the cause, too narrowly focused on the goals, too steeped in group ideology or collective mentality, too readily reinforced by the solidarity of like-minded ranks closing in around one, to step back and evaluate the larger picture dispassionately as an outsider might.
Sooner or later, as political true believers, activists find themselves going door-to-door in search of fresh converts or handing out free literature on street corners, like proselytizers who've got to recruit their quota of new members to achieve status in the sect. I've been there, to some extent -- holding signs, making phone calls, stuffing envelopes, all ways of "getting the message out" -- until one day that nagging little voice in the back of my head started to screech. Perhaps I'd just interrupted one too many dinners with the unwelcome phone call, or heard one too many pleasant conversations sour when the subject turned to politics, or taken part in one too many unnecessary disputes with loved ones -- for what?
Ideas may be impervious to attacks from without, but they're truly vulnerable to questions from within. It's the human condition, in a nutshell: people expend stupendous amounts of time and energy on absurd efforts to control, cajole, coerce, and otherwise "change the world" (i.e., usually the people) around them. Many seem too preoccupied with changing the world to stop and examine their own beliefs, ideas, and assumptions about the world or their relationship with it. Many individuals would gleefully force the consequences of foolish mistakes, misperceptions, and misplaced good intentions on the rest of the world, if they could; all too often political power enables them to do just that. It's your vote . . .
Perhaps ironically, I've found that active candidates may be far more understanding of and sympathetic to the non-voter's stance than people with less experience in politics or voters who may strongly identify with a party, or be deeply concerned with a particular issue, but have little or no background in political activism -- who don't think outside the voting booth or the ballot box. The latter seem to think non-voters should get back in the good citizen corral; saddled, bridled, complacently ready to be ridden into the ground by other people's chosen political overlords.
Tracy, I voted for the overlords I wanted -- none. Is that choice on the ballot?
published at Endervidualism on 6/13/06