In the eyes of a foreigner, America is downright perplexing. This was as true of Alexis de Tocqueville's U.S. of A. in the 1830s as it is of John Oliver's in 2014. I too stake claim to this tradition, albeit in more modest circumstances. It is fantastically puzzling to witness a nation - so self-professedly steeped in one of the world’s great democratic traditions - fizzle out in the event of a midterm election. So, ‘meh’ was the reaction to the midterm, and newscasters and pundits in unison put one simple question to the country as the spectre of another lacklustre Congress loomed: “does anyone care anymore?”
Here are the facts: this year, a minority of Americans, 37 percent of eligible voters (mostly white men and older voters, at that), had more of a say than anyone else in the outcome of the elections. Why? Simply because they showed up at the polling booth on election day.
This, despite the population of millennials in America exceeding that of any other age group, and the number of women outnumbering men by a whopping 7.2 million. A failure to vote left this ‘silent electorate’ at the mercy of a radically different group of voters whose priorities (and biases) could well impact critical facets of one’s life: access to birth control, health care coverage, and more.
The voter turnout was so abysmal this year that senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont plans to introduce a “Democracy Day Act” which makes election day a national holiday. This act was developed in an effort to incentivize voters to vote. In Sanders’ words, “we should not be satisfied with a ‘democracy’ in which more than 60 percent of our people don’t vote and some 80 percent of young people and low-income Americans fail to vote… We can and must do better than that.”
This is a welcome step, but the conversation does not end there. Here at Sarah Lawrence, the apathy was palpable. Though there were a few brave faces who canvassed everywhere from Bates to the Pub to Hill House encouraging fellow Americans to head to the ballot box, the interest usually generated by a campus so politically aware in its character, was sorely lacking this time around.
The sense I got was that our community was fed up with the status quo in Washington. We are not alone in this regard. Much of the country feels this way. The departing 113th Congress, in statistical terms, ranks dead last as the least popular Congress in history.
The fallout of the Citizens United Supreme Court judgement has created an opening for ‘big money’ donors and corporations. many of which have reoriented the priorities and leanings of politicians in desperate need of campaign financing, alienating vast swathes of middle-class America in the process. Add to that a seemingly unstoppable tide of income inequality, an army (or militia, depending on how you want to view it) of lobbyists in Washington who convince politicians to vote (in some cases) against the wishes of some 90% of the population, and the result is an understandable sense of frustration. Simply put, is it worth voting anymore?
Yes, yes, and yes. Despite the doom, gloom, and lack of interest surrounding politics in this country, there is still reason to turn up at the polling booth. In the case of Massachusetts, the same booth that elects the likes of Mitt Romney (Mr. Forty-Seven Percent) ends up electing the woman who has fought most against big money in Washington, Elizabeth Warren.
Remember, voter apathy in this country is by no means a new phenomenon. Tocqueville observed, “there are many men of principle in both parties in America, but there is no party of principle.” This didn’t stop the country from electing the likes of Franklin D. Roosevelt to the White House or Daniel Patrick Moynihan to the senate.
For my part, I have travelled to a great many countries where the liberty extended to all Americans is but a distant dream that a hopeful few hold on to. I am ineligible to vote either in America (because I am not a citizen) or in my native India (because citizens abroad cannot vote), so the mere ability to turn up on election day and cast one’s ballot with ease is something I too can only dream (and write!) of.
That is not the case for most of you at Sarah Lawrence. Voting is more than a privilege. It may be optional but it must be treated like a duty. It should not be wasted. Little may come of it but use it while you can. Do not allow a minority of voters to determine the agenda of your government. This is as true for your midterm votes as it is for your student senate and your local government votes. As I see it, choosing not to vote is as good as opting for “taxation without representation,” which, in the words of James Otis, amounts to “tyranny.”
by Harshavardan Raghunandhan