Politics & Policy

Unserious Voters, Decent Citizens — in America, They’re the Same People

Voters arrive at a polling place in East Lansing, Mich., November 6, 2018. (Jeff Kowalsky/Reuters)
Election Day is an almost entirely cost-free opportunity to step into a private place and say, ‘This is what I want.’

Today is Election Day, which means that a great many professional to semi-professional scolds will be hectoring you to vote, calling it a “civic duty” and invoking such clichés as “If you don’t vote, you can’t complain.” The business of this Tuesday, they say, is to “make your voice heard.”

Okay. That’s Tuesday. What is the business of Wednesday?

Procedural majoritarian democracy — voting and the subsequent peaceable exchange of political power — is admirable and necessary not because, as another cliché insists, “we are all equal at the polling place.” There is no equality among people in this world — some people have some pretty stupid political opinions, and they act on them — and the notional “equality before the law” that we Americans cleave to describes the character of our institutions, not the character of our people.

The value of voting is that it is the easiest nonviolent means of ensuring a minimum level of accountability among lawmakers and high officials. If we do not like the principal figures in our governments, we can change them. Voting is a practical measure, not an affirmation of every ignorant sentiment and selfish demand from every Larry, Caitlyn, and Avery across the fruited plain. If there were an easier and more reliable method for ensuring accountability than asking 50 percent plus 1 of the people what they think about things they don’t know very much about (there’s no shame in rational ignorance; it is rational, after all), the world would be a better place, at least a better-governed place. But there isn’t. So we vote.

Voting is not the highest expression of citizenship: It’s the bargain-basement expression of citizenship, an almost entirely cost-free opportunity to step into a private place and say: “This is what I want.” There isn’t anything particularly noble or elevated about “I want.” Every screaming toddler on every airplane in the sky is saying “I want,” and it doesn’t impress us all that much. Every crusty bum on the streets of San Francisco with his hand out is saying “I want,” as is every shrieking women’s-studies major in Portland and every talk-radio caller in Plano. It’s not that this isn’t important: It is difficult to ensure accountability to the governed without asking the governed what they want. But there’s a hell of a lot more to citizenship than that.

The architects of the American constitutional order understood this, which is why they put limits on the power of the federal government and — this is critical — limits on the power of We the People and their great endless “I want!” They gave us the Bill of Rights, i.e. the list of stuff that you don’t really get to vote on, the things that are not up for debate and renegotiation: freedom of speech and of the press, freedom of religion, the right to keep and bear arms, the right to be free of unwarranted searches and seizures, etc. I spend a great deal of time talking to people about their political thinking and their policy preferences, and I am damned pleased that they don’t get to vote on these things.

Saying “I want” is pretty easy. There are higher expressions of citizenship. You can see their monuments in Arlington and Valley Forge, and hear their echoes everywhere from France to Afghanistan. But dying on the battlefield is not the only way to serve, only the most dramatic. There are those who die for their principles, and those who live for them: Charles Sumner, Susan B. Anthony, Henry David Thoreau. And some of those who live for a cause also die for it: There is no better example of active citizenship than the career of the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.

Those are dramatic stories with famous heroes, but all of those little platoons that are so easy to overlook contribute more to our real well-being than any election could ever begin to: all that volunteer work, those quiet helpers behind the scenes, the people enduring endless committee meetings that, time-consuming and maddening though they are, ultimately are pointed at worthy and necessary objectives. Every nun up at 4 a.m. praying for the ultimate good of people she’s never met and never will, fulfilling the duties of a different citizenship. All those businesses that are really about more than doing business. All those people doing the tedious work of loving their neighbors. Who say along with Ed Tom Bell: “Okay, I’ll be a part of this world.”

It isn’t that we don’t want to be good, or that we intend to shirk our duties as citizens, which are far more expansive than registering a personal preference on the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November every other year. It’s that we forget. Forgetting is easy, especially when there are so many amusing and invigorating distractions, which is most of what our political discourse really is. Do you really believe that the United States is on the verge of turning into Nazi Germany or modern Venezuela? Grow up.

It is hard to be a citizen. It is easy to get excited about the circus.

The American voter is basically unserious, and you might be forgiven for thinking that he is an idiot. The American citizen, on the other hand, can rejoice in his membership in a community whose genius, energy, and decency knows few if any rivals. The vexing thing is that they are the same person.

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