Rod Dreher wrote an interesting blogpost today on voting. Though he has historically encouraged people to vote, he feels more apathy today than in times past:
From a philosophical point of view, the problems I care the most about can’t be adequately addressed through politics. They are spiritual and cultural in nature. Politics, as the process by which we govern ourselves, is not entirely tangential to them, of course, but I no longer believe that they are as relevant as I once thought. The times require prophets, not politicians. I do vote, but have no confidence that the winner, even if I voted for him or her, is going to make much difference.
There’s also a degree to which many people feel somewhat helpless in casting their vote. As Anthony Esolen wrote today for the Front Porch Republic, voting is a formality, “and everyone pretty much knows what will happen. When you jerk a wooden puppet you know where it’s going in general, even if you can’t exactly predict where this ankle or that wrist might point.”
A lot of Americans feel this way. Either there aren’t any candidates they particularly care for, or they sense that their vote doesn’t really matter. They see themselves as flakes of snow in an avalanche: who are they to turn the tide of politics? And what if there seems to be no good tide—no goals worth reaching for, no candidates worthy of trust?
In his classic Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville gave some good reasons for why we all ought to vote, despite how we may feel:
In the American States power has been disseminated with admirable skill for the purpose of interesting the greatest possible number of persons in the common weal. … For in the United States it is believed, and with truth, that patriotism is a kind of devotion which is strengthened by ritual observance.
… The native of New England is attached to his township because it is independent and free: his co-operation in its affairs ensures his attachment to its interest; the well-being it affords him secures his affection; and its welfare is the aim of his ambition and of his future exertions: he takes a part in every occurrence in the place; he practises the art of government in the small sphere within his reach; he accustoms himself to those forms which can alone ensure the steady progress of liberty; he imbibes their spirit; he acquires a taste for order, comprehends the union or the balance of powers, and collects clear practical notions on the nature of his duties and the extent of his rights.
First, Tocqueville reminds us here that voting is a “ritual observance” that fosters patriotism. He isn’t speaking of an empty nationalism or partisanship—rather, he references the sort of thoughtful care and involvement that ought to characterize a citizenry.
Voting helps keep alive the traditions that have historically fostered an energetically involved populace. It bolsters a spirit of involvement and care amongst the American citizenry. For that reason, there must be an important caveat here: uninformed voting (aka, voting by party, without having done any research) is bad voting. We as citizens should never vote blindly along party lines. Politics was always meant to be more than this: we ought to research various candidates as much as possible, in order to make wise and well-informed choices.
Second, Tocqueville reminds us that voting combats an apathy that destroys the political process. If we were not so apathetic about elections (especially local elections, which do not get the attention they deserve), it seems likely that the process wouldn’t be as frustrating as it is now. Voters do have a say in which candidates get chosen, in which policies get passed. But oftentimes, we neglect the process, and then complain about its results. As my sister put it today, “Vote or don’t. But if you don’t, don’t complain!”
Finally, Tocqueville tells us that voting is about stirring the interests of the populace for their locale. In the U.S. today, more people care about national and presidential elections than they do anything local. But this is sorely detrimental to the way our government was supposed to function: our interests should be formed and inspired first at the local level, where policies often have the most immediate impact. We should put as much thought and research into a mayoral election as we do a gubernatorial or presidential election. Unfortunately, many people may shirk off promptings to vote today, because they think this election isn’t “important.” But nothing could be further from the truth.
Tocqueville rightly recognized that the American political process was vital to our country’s strength and vitality. Above all, he recognized the importances of voting in small, important matters—for “How can a populace, unaccustomed to freedom in small concerns, learn to use it temperately in great affairs?”
If you care about voting in 2016, you should care about voting in 2014. Even if you don’t think it’ll do much good. It may do you some good, and that’s where change starts.