This election is historic. The decision Americans face at the polls this November is no less consequential than the fate of the entire world, for where America goes, the rest are sure to follow. Two candidates, each with dramatically different visions for the future, will determine whether America rebounds from its present crisis triumphantly or falls to the dustbin of history, another failed empire to be studied in the coming centuries as Egypt, Rome, and Mongolia are today. It is the most important election of all-time.
Such a distinction might be a little less dubious, though, if it weren’t for the fact that the record is broken every four years.
There is lots of money to be made off of elections. Marketing is an enormous source of revenue for media, and you’d better believe they aren’t about to brand this election as virtually the same as any other, no more or less consequential than Bush/Gore, Bush/Kerry, Obama/McCain, or Eisenhower/Stevenson. That just doesn't sell. It’s got to be dramatic, with far-reaching, seismic consequences, to ensure people tune in and catch the new Swiffer ads.
I could talk at length about the lack of focus on substantial issues, the barely-discernible gap between the major parties’ policies, and the showmanship of the whole thing. But this is all transparent enough to see, and I think even Americans who take the elections rather seriously have some feeling that there’s an awful lot of fluff surrounding them. But if you think your presence at the polls is what really effects the direction this country goes, you’re a victim of Get Out the Vote propaganda. The emphasis we place on voting treats it as the one true means of civic engagement and empowerment. Voter registration campaigns are as strong this season as ever (due in no small part, I suppose, to open Republican attempts to restrict access to the polls), but activists perhaps unknowingly dissuade people from effective civil participation every time they sign a new name to the voter registrar.
Voting has the opposite effect of spurring citizen action. Instead, it encourages people to “read up” on the candidates and to “educate” themselves by reading The New York Times and watching both MSNBC and FOX News so they can get the “whole picture.” Then, they’re supposed to take an hour out of their work day to drive down to their church or other safe, secure, possibly policed location, push a button for whichever guy they thought the news made the strongest case for, and watch the results on TV that night. From there, regardless of the outcome, it won’t be for another four years until they become civically engaged again. In a way it’s a lot like reality television.
I would encourage a much different type of civic engagement. Penning letters to congressmen and congresswomen and local news affiliates, organizing demonstrations or town hall gatherings, pamphleteering, striking when and where necessary, assembling in bulk quantities of personhood and issuing demands – these are the kinds of actions that lead to change. They lead to a fair degree of unrest too, of course, and as the Occupy demonstrations last year revealed, the nation’s police forces aren’t too keen on them. But they are the real agencies of change.
It’s arguable that the “lesser of two evils” vote matters, to some degree, in the sense of pushing the country gradually in a better direction. But the minute differences between candidates simply do not measure up to enough of the progress that needs to be made. We need more rapid results than a few inches every four years. The choice at the polling station is not one of substantive policy, but of rhetoric. What you’re deciding is whose phrasing of “I’m going to improve the economy” you like better - Mitt Romney's "Poor people are lazy" or Barack Obama's "I'm going to help the middle class." Meanwhile, during the off-season, once concessions no longer need to be made to voters, the rhetoric turns back to the usual: Americans are going to have to sacrifice.
The difference between Romney and Obama is a curious one, made all the more curious by the incredible domination of public discourse far-right conservatives enjoy. A man with utter contempt for anyone who doesn’t own a yacht and who belongs to a church which was, until 1978, an officially racist organization is running against the nation’s first black president, using all kinds of race-related welfare and food stamp jabs to try and pull ahead in the polls. In terms of character alone the decision couldn’t be easier, especially in light of Romney's recent comments about 47 percent of Americans. In terms of implemented policy, I can’t tell where significant differences would lie. One of the commonest criticisms of both candidates is that they’ve hypocritically slandered one another over positions they’ve each endorsed, especially as regards Wall Street and healthcare. And as far as foreign policy goes, that’s more the jurisdiction of American multinational corporations, oil interests, and defense contractors than the president. Neither candidate looks especially innovative or moral on questions of privacy rights, the prison-industrial complex, or the environment. This leaves only name-calling and relatively petty squabbles over small social issues.
What’s shocking about voting, and what illustrates just how reactionary this country’s authority figures have become, is that costly, highly controversial measures are being openly and proudly implemented to restrict access to the polls on the basis of race and socioeconomic status. Now people feel their freedoms are in jeopardy, and the Get Out the Vote types have upped their game to counter the assault. I salute the foot soldiers of such campaigns; they are undoubtedly acting in a morally upstanding way. But it’s the wrong kind of groundwork.
Surely without even sensing it, the pro-voting enthusiasts are ensuring a status-quo of Americans keeping their candidate choices private, getting all the information they need from “trusted news sources,” cooperatively selecting a button, and returning to work with a small pin letting the world know they’ve just made a difference. It should be easy to see how such a system is purposefully designed to give people the idea that their voice is being heard without ever actually having to pay any attention at all.
Real change has never come from the polling station. What goes on a ballot is what legislators place on the ballot, and what legislators place on the ballot is what their most significant financiers ask them to. Injustices of the past were overturned by strikes and demonstrations, not high voter turnout. Workers in the early 1900s demanded paid time off, livable wages, and better working conditions. They achieved them not by obediently accepting the choices given to them in November, but by taking matters into their own hands and issuing demands. Same goes for the Civil Rights and women’s movement and all the advancements made toward our stewardship of the planet and its resources.
Americans have not had the chance to influence the biggest issues at the polls. Gifts are not handed down from above. Healthcare, the environment, theft of property by bankers - these are all matters of grave importance which will not be addressed without popular uprisings in the form of demonstrations, teach-ins, letters, and community outreach. Vote if you’d like to. Your ancestors may have waged a long and tiresome fight so that you could. But understand that, like other important freedoms, the freedom to vote was not won by voting.