*Sigh* Another midterm election? Raghunandhan examines voter apathy in America

Vasaris Balzekas '17 poses behind a Ronald Reagan mask. Photo courtesy Ellie Brumbaum '17.

Vasaris Balzekas '17 poses behind a Ronald Reagan mask. Photo courtesy Ellie Brumbaum '17.

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


It's not just the government that's watching you

At my high school, all students were required to sign an “Acceptable Use” policy that allowed their cell phones or any other electronic device to be subject to random search by the school administration at any given time. This was not major surveillance, but it was an invasion of privacy. Fortunately I never became a victim of this, yet we as Americans are all “victims” in the world of domestic surveillance. This surveillance is not only conducted by our government, but private companies looking to sell a product, who in turn, infringe on our state of personal enfranchisement from intrusion or disturbance within our private realms.

So, why do most Americans seem more worried about government surveillance by “Big Data” and less worried about commercial surveillance by Big Data?  Everyday users of Facebook and Google, for example, are tracked consistently in ways that violate their privacy. But the government’s doing this is what seems to worry people most.

According to a recent Huffington Post poll, nearly 60 percent of Americans are against the National Security Agency's massive collection of data on telephone and Internet use. According to the same article, even though many people are aware of the government's promises to protect civil liberties, they are still suspicious about the government’s willingness to violate citizens’ rights to privacy, and only 53 percent think that the government helps protect freedoms. Many call to mind the oppressive government “Big Brother” as in George Orwell’s novel 1984. They think of it as totalitarian and repressive. They think of it as only a step away from a total police state, where no one has any individual freedom and the police can come and take anyone away at any time. This is an important fear for people in a democratic society to have, not because of its reality but because an absence of that fear would suggest a citizenry that has become complacent.

This public focus on government surveillance alone allows corporate surveillance to go on under the radar. It is as if only the government can watch, or rather spy on, its citizens and when it does watch them, freedom will necessarily be lost; but the government is not the only one watching American citizens. So are Google, Facebook, and major retailers like Macy’s and Best Buy. Both Facebook and Google use data about users to better their advertising advantage and to sell products. Think about it: on your Facebook page, advertisements along the side column are specifically chosen based on your search history, browsing history, and likes and interests that you display on your profile. There’s a reason why the ads that appear on your home screen are accurately relevant.

This kind of information helps advertisers develop profiles of shoppers. Commercial organizations are currently developing software that can track shoppers by location and actually influence their buying in stores. In some cases, shoppers agree to be tracked in order to get bargains, free apps, and access to in store Wi-Fi. This free stuff is a way to track a consumer's online and in-store movement in order to steer them to products.

Also, the NSA could not do its work without the data it gets from commercial sites. Facebook might use certain demographic to place ads, while the government uses it to determine security threats. Both spy on American citizens to the same extent, though for different purposes.

People need to realize that the kind of data-based surveillance practiced by both government and private corporations are in reality not all that distinct. Both are violations of privacy and both are probably unavoidable, the government for security purposes and private companies like Google because this is the best way for them to turn a profit and supply information to their paying advertisers. But this kind of surveillance is not like having the police come through your door in the middle of the night. It is less traumatizing but more insidious, because the feeling of being watched and of having one’s moves tracked by a company who sees people only in economic terms has the effect of making us prisoners in a consumerist panopticon.

Although I am no longer a high school student subjected to an inappropriately cavalier form of scholastic oppression, my existence outside of high school dictates that I now enter the world of full scale domestic surveillance, and thus becoming a victim of an opressive hand of high control and no elect.

(Sources: Huffington Post, Christian Science Monitor, NPR.com)

by Gabe Salomon '17

SLC Phoenix

The Phoenix is a non-profit, student-run publication representing the voices and opinions of Sarah Lawrence College community members. Our print edition publishes bi-weekly on Tuesdays, and our online edition is updated multiple times per week. Anyone may attend our open meetings at 9:00 PM on Wednesday nights in the North Room of the Pub.