Rothfeld: A Civic Responsibility

by Rebecca Rothfeld | 11/5/12 11:00pm

The other day, my friend revealed to me that he is not planning to vote in the upcoming election. It was several moments before I recovered from my initial shock and thought to pose the obvious, albeit inarticulate, question, "But ... why not?"

The conversation quickly devolved into a protracted debate about the practical merits of voting, and it was not long before I realized that I was fighting an uphill battle. A single vote is simply not going to influence the overall outcome of the election, my friend aptly observed. Even in as extreme a scenario as the 2000 Florida recount debacle, a single vote carries little weight. I was forced to concede that my friend's lone vote probably wouldn't have much of an impact on the results of the New Hampshire election, let alone the national race. His would truly be the voice of one crying out in the political wilderness.

It was only after this conversation that I realized I'd taken the wrong tack. I'd been sucked into a discussion that was ultimately irrelevant. The reason to vote is not because one vote is going to single-handedly swing the election. Voting isn't like a basketball game in a cheesy made-for-TV movie: You aren't going to be the underdog hero who scores in the last few minutes and takes credit for the resultant victory. I should have told my friend that voting isn't glamorous or heroic. The problem isn't my argument, I should have said, it's your perspective.

You should vote not because you can make a significant quantitative difference in the election, but because you can make a qualitative difference to your community, friends and acquaintances. You should vote because you have control over the kind of person you are and the kind of decisions you make, no matter how little control you have over the massive and mysterious phenomenon that is the Electoral College. You should vote because actions with measurable repercussions are not the only kinds of actions worth performing.

You should vote because apathy is neither attractive nor feasible your existence is inescapably political. No matter how hard you try to withdraw from the political sphere, participation in the social world is necessarily political participation.

Unless you live on an undiscovered desert island, your identity is not a private identity: You benefit from the upkeep of public roads; you follow laws or suffer the consequences; you pay taxes; you cannot drink alcohol until you turn 21. All of this conspires to create the environment that defines you; all of this has the capacity to contribute to, or detract from, your quality of life. These rights, duties and norms may be small and seemingly insignificant parts of your everyday existence, too familiar and banal to merit further consideration, but they nevertheless affect and even determine your experience as an American. It is ludicrous to imagine that you can escape the boons and banes of citizenship merely by avoiding the polls. Not voting doesn't make you apolitical or revolutionary it makes you irresponsible. As long as you remain in this country, purchasing corn products heavily subsidized by the federal government and frequenting parks protected by local police forces, you cannot escape our politics.

Inaction is impossible. If you stay home on Nov. 6, you will not be effectively removing yourself from the political sphere. You will not be protesting (an admittedly flawed) political system. You will succeed only in denying the manifest fact of your own political involvement.

The truth is that there is no apolitical option. Your disengagement is an act of engagement, but it is a cowardly and negligent one. In not voting, you are voting against both candidates and both visions of America: You are voting for a culture of apathy and irresponsibility, a culture in which we ignore our role as active participants in a governmental system and cede the political sphere to our opponents.

Don't vote because you can impact the outcome of the election. Vote as a means of accepting your position within a political reality. Don't measure the impact of your vote in terms of who wins the election measure it in terms of your own orientation toward the community of which you are a part, whether you like it or not.

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