As Election Day approaches, you’ll hear more and more from people who are simply fed up with politics. The system is corrupt, all candidates are the same, and the truth is twisted beyond recognition, so why participate at all? No, they say, instead they’re going to protest by opting out; by not voting at all.
I want to examine the premises here. Is the system corrupt? To some extent, I have to say that it is. The deck is stacked, and some folks have disproportionate influence over policy. After all, not everybody can afford lobbyists. But to say that the system is corrupt is not the same as saying that the system can’t do some good, or that you can’t have some influence over it, or that you don’t have some power to clean it up.
But how can you clean it up if all the candidates are the same? Again, I have to agree that politicians do have a lot in common. They share a lot of the same political tactics, they share a lot of the same donors, they even share a lot of the same policy objectives. But that’s not the same as saying that they implement these tactics to the same degree, or that their donors are all the same, or that their policy objectives are all the same. It’s hard to imagine that the U.S. would’ve invaded Iraq had Al Gore been President; it’s hard to imagine that President McCain would’ve passed healthcare reform. Candidates make a difference.
But how do you know what the candidates are going to do if they’re all lying? Unfortunately, our political system encourages our politicians to be everything to everybody, which is impossible, so instead they lie a lot. This is nothing new. But that doesn’t mean you can’t reasonably predict how they’re going to behave in office. I think it’s important to approach politics like an anthropologist, and listen to campaign-speak as a foreign language or dialect. What rituals do they take part in? Can you detect patterns of behavior that relate to their words? Do they belong to tribes that influence their actions? Just because the truth isn’t laid bare before you doesn’t mean you can’t figure out the inner workings.
Still, this may not be enough to convince you. Politics is still too corrupt, the candidates are still too similar, and the truth is still too hard to figure out; so why not register your discontent by withholding your vote? This I can’t agree with at all. Protests work when they disrupt everyday routine, forcing people to take notice. But withholding your vote doesn’t disrupt anything. Even without your vote, politics goes on; somebody wins and somebody loses. Even if the loser regrets being a corrupt liar, the winner won’t, and that’s the person who sets the baseline for future campaigns. All you’ve done is thrown away your ability to have a say. All you’re saying is that the politicians don’t have to pay attention to you.
Now, I don’t mean to imply that your vote is a magic wand. It won’t give you everything you want, your candidate won’t fix everything, and the system will work slowly, if at all. The reality is that democracy is messy and can’t satisfy everybody all the time. But your vote is your small part of the process, and small things add up over time. Don’t give up, and don’t give up your vote.