As class dismissed yesterday, I encouraged students to exercise their right to vote. One came up to me and said what probably many were thinking: “if I don’t know anything about the candidates, I think it’s pointless to vote.”
I agree with this opinion as literally stated. But of course I don’t agree that the solution is to not vote. The solution is to have done your homework and learned what you needed to in order to vote effectively. As it stands, the statement is just an excuse for feeling less guilty about laziness. “Since I don’t know anything about the candidates, I might as well not vote.” As if “knowing about the candidates” were outside one’s control!
It’s especially ironic that this defense comes from the lips of those who grew up in the 21st century. I came of age in the 80’s, and at that time it was indeed relatively difficult to seek out election information. But these days the knowledge is literally a click or two away. If we can ask ChatGPT to write our essays, can’t we ask it what our local candidates stand for?
The problem is that, as with so many things in America, we’re spoiled. “Taking our privilege for granted” doesn’t begin to cover it: we don’t even recognize we have one. All we’ve ever known is peace and security, and it’s hard to envision things being any other way. Aren’t the issues that candidates talk about mere squabbles? Do I, as a member of society, really care whether there’s a 0.1% increase in the sales tax for such-and-such county in order to fund a new community center? I mean, I have a lot of other things I wanted to get done today. It’s easy to conclude that participation in governing is completely optional, and often not worth one’s time.
And so you find many people declare they’re “just not into politics.” They conceive of “politics,” I think, as a hobby like video games or hang gliding. If it naturally interests you, by all means pay attention to it and even “geek out.” But at the end of the day it’s just one form of diversion set against possible others. Everyone chooses their own form of entertainment.
I honestly can’t think of any way to shake citizens out of this rut other than circumstances changing so the stakes become higher. As long as the debate is perceived to be about 0.1% tax increases, the lion’s share of the population is going to tune out. It’s like children who grow up in a stable home: they don’t even realize some children have issues like “will there be anything to eat tonight?” or “when will Dad come back?” or “did we make sure to lock the doors?” If one of their friends broached a high-stakes issue like that, they’d probably just produce a blank expression. Do people really worry about such things? they’d wonder.
Similarly, most Americans don’t seem to realize that much of the world’s history has involved totalitarian regime of some form or another. The “typical” situation — if you randomly sampled societies — is not one where the masses get to calmly choose their leaders. It’s one in which the strongest bully has asserted himself over his rivals and now seeks to exert control wherever possible. In that case — the majority — indifference is not an option. There are real consequences, and who sits atop the heap matters.
So that’s how I’m feeling on this Election Day: mildly frustrated that most people don’t “get” what a privilege self-governance is, and mildly embarrassed when other countries shake their heads at our turnout statistics. Tomorrow, the websites will announce winners that few knew were even running, government will march on slowly in a mostly random direction, and my mind will be occupied by other things.
But what about a year from now?
Will half of eligible voters sit out the next election, indifferent to whether we hand over the country’s reins of power to a madman? Normally our privileged masses can afford to ignore even Presidential elections without much impact on their daily lives. Consider how much the country would have changed if McCain had won in 2008, or Romney in 2012, instead of Obama. The choice was real, and it mattered, but at the end of the day you had two well-meaning candidates with slight differences in substance and style, either of whom could have led the country relatively effectively.
I’m telling you: it’s different this time. All the early indications are that 2024 will be a “rematch” between Biden and Trump — and the latest polls show Trump leading in five out of the six most crucial battleground states. This is emphatically not a contest between two well-adjusted, well-intentioned men with slightly different policy preferences. This is a choice between (a) Joe Normal, and (b) a man single-mindedly obsessed with personal accolades and personal grievances; a man who cares little about the country and actually isn’t very interested in what the issues facing it even are; a man who ignores or outright disdains fairness, decency, history, the rule of law, and the often-invisible institutions that hold our country together day by day. He is devoted to exactly one cause — himself — and any occasion on which he has done something “good” is pure accident.
People who defend their support for Trump point to some supposed achievement or policy win that salves their conscience. “Well, at least he shored up the border.” “At least he brought taxes down.” “At least the Covid vaccine came out fast.” What these folks fail to realize is that Trump was merely a random-number generator. He was bound to get some things accidentally right just by the laws of probability. But I’m telling you: he doesn’t actually care about abortion — he just wants to pull evangelical votes. He doesn’t care about tax law unless it affects his own tax bracket. And he only cares about the border if it has a Wall with his name on it that he can brag about.
You might say, “well who cares what his reasons are, as long as I’m happy with the outcomes?” You’re playing with fire. He has no loyalty to whatever cause you are championing. The moment the equation changes, he will reverse his position with not a moment’s notice. His friends become his enemies and vice versa based on his personal whim. And unlike most Presidents in our history, it truly matters who his personal friends and enemies are, because he will persecute the latter in real and cruel ways.
I’m not comparing Trump to Hitler, but let’s just remember how Hitler came to power. It wasn’t a coup or a war: he was fairly elected in an undisputed contest of votes. Germans today scratch their heads as they look back… how could we possibly have..? But it’s true. It happened. An advanced and well-educated populace of millions voluntarily handed the reins of power to a genuinely malevolent actor.
If Trump is re-elected next year, there will have been many forces at play. One is the outrageous inability of most evangelical Christians to recognize what is plainly before their eyes. Another is the anger and grievance that so many who feel “left behind” have had bottled up for years, and that Trump has finally released. But another critical one is simply apathy. People sailing through life who can’t be bothered to muster the enthusiasm for a ten-minute Google search and a trip to a polling place. People who can’t imagine that who’s in power actually matters, and that possibly their greatest privilege is living in a country where they get a say in that. A say which they toss away and move on to the next Netflix episode.
We don’t know what we’ve got ’til it’s gone.