Part II: The Democratic Man and the Numbers Game

"Go back to school," her father said. "All the Democratic Party has to do with Jefferson these days is put his picture up at banquets. Jefferson believed full citizenship was a privilege to be earned by each man, that it was not something given lightly nor to be taken lightly. A man couldn't vote simply because he was a man, in Jefferson's eyes. He had to be a responsible man. A vote was, to Jefferson, a precious privilege a man attained for himself in a—a live-and-let-live economy."
{Harper Lee, Go Set a Watchman}

For the first time since I turned 18 on election day in 2008, I'm planning to vote in a primary. And to be completely honest, I didn't actually vote in the 2012 presidential election, or the off-year election in 2010. I think I did end up voting last year, mostly because I had just spent a semester at Cambridge with someone who frequently got frustrated with her very English, very patronizing supervisor and would soapbox about the merits of the democratic ideal.

But throughout my years in college, I generally felt compelled not to vote. I was not, I hope, merely being lazy and failing to drive a half mile down the road to the elementary school. Rather, I had very little time, between juggling five classes and a part-time job, to properly research candidates and get some idea about who I should be voting for. I thought to myself that it was better not to vote at all than to cast a vote in ignorance.

If I weren't so concerned about the outcome of this year's election, I would probably still hold myself to that standard. And really, I think I am holding myself to that standard, except that I actually have had the time to make good on my aspirations to responsible politics. But reading that passage I've quoted above made me pause for a moment, because it's smack in the middle of the bit where Atticus comes out with the character of his racist sentiments, and I didn't want to agree with him. (Which is fair, I think—better to see your subconscious beliefs and question them, regardless of motive, as long as you're honest in your inquiry.)

We think of voting as a privilege, but one that ought to be open to all people. Since land ownership was removed as a qualification for voting, and African-Americans, women, and individuals under the age of 21 were admitted to the ranks of the eligible, it seems like the glow of accomplishment has worn off and there is a sense that there's nothing special to it. If anybody can do it, why does it matter if I do?

In my head, I want to make a comparison between voting and literacy. I've heard it said that for the first time in history, the vast majority of people in the West at least can read. And yet, poll after poll has shown that approximately 30% of the populace rarely or never read an entire book from cover to cover after high school (and maybe didn't in high school either). The phrase "post-literate society" has been thrown around, perhaps a bit too casually. The suggestion too that by making education for all and insisting on access to public schools has cheapened it in the eyes of the students.

I'm not sure if I'm prepared to stand behind these last explicantia, but in hindsight, it's an interesting comparison to make because those who tend to read books also tend to be more civically engaged, though of course this is a correlation and not a statement of causation.

The point I'm ultimately trying to get at is that we often talk as if the numbers were what counted. Journalists write headlines about record showings at the caucuses or for primaries, and everyone talks about Get Out the Vote initiatives and how many people are registered to vote in the area. The volume is made to seem significant.

But realistically, how many of these people voted straight ticket, or just listened to the opinions of someone authoritative with whom they generally agree, and then went and voted that way? It's not as shady as Chicago politicians slipping dollars to meatpackers, of course, but there's a certain similarity in that both are about the numbers and both rely on a lack of individual, critical thought on the part of the voter. Let Joe Everyman be led by a promise of remuneration or a promise of social inclusion, the result is the same.

I suppose it's ultimately a reflection of two aspects of government. On the one hand, it is meant to be as representative of the will of the people as possible (Ideally. No comment as to how true that actually is...). On the other hand, it's meant to govern said people as well as possible, and sometimes good governance means acknowledging the limits of its ability to express that will.

Insofar as you or I think that we and our interests are best represented by a particular candidate—or party—we may not be too concerned by the details of how those candidates actually intend to govern. If, however, we are concerned about longevity and about what is best for all concerned, then we might actually have to take some time to consider our options and research them as best we are able.

Ultimately, I guess I still side to some extent with Atticus on this question. Oh, I don't think we should set up, say, voter ID laws or poll taxes or any other restriction to ensure that voters are serious about the act of voting. The fact that they even show up seems miraculous in itself at times. But I do think that we are meant to do something more than merely nod our heads and go along with whatever the party we usually side with says. For one thing, we have only two major parties properly represented in the American political system, and that is a severe dearth of expression by contrast with the incredible range of opinions and beliefs that can be held by any one individual. For another, it matters not only who we choose, but also how we choose them, because the depth of our engagement and our willingness to challenge the establishment is our way of participating in a political process where we just don't get to speak as individuals. Even though I think the system has some serious and deep flaws, that doesn't give us an excuse to move to Canada and let the whole thing burn. Quite the contrary: that's when it's time to get serious, man or woman up, and actually try to change things. It might take a long time, but as a woman who lives beyond what many feminists of bygone decades dared to dream of, I kind of have to believe that, some day, it will work.

Today's Reads:
- Single Women Are Now the Most Potent Political Force in America by Rebecca Traister
- The Decline of the American Booklover by Jordan Weissman
- Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas Hasn't Asked a Question in Over a Decade by Jon Schuppe
- We Asked an Expert if Kanye West Could Possibly Be As Broke As He Says He Is by Sam Wolfson (Yes. I totally read this article.)
- The Stigma of Doing Things Alone by Christina Ling
- Looking Back by Jeffrey Toobin
- Bernie and the Millenials by Corey Robin

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