The Ballot or the Bullet
William Rivers Pitt, Truthout | Op-Ed
Nobody will ever deprive the American people of the right to vote except the American people themselves, and the only way they could do this is by not voting.
- Franklin Delano Roosevelt
There was a time, not so very long ago, when I believed that what was great about this country could, and would, overcome and undo what has gone wrong in this country. I spoke with pretty words about the idea that is America, that this nation is as much a concept as it is a place, founded on arguments and agreements and the will of good people to do right, that its core excellence was the manner in which it was crafted to be self-improving and self-correcting through a deftly-laid process of votes, laws and leadership.
I still believe that, with all my heart, but it is harder now. So very much harder. I cling to those beliefs like a man lost at sea clings to a piece of driftwood, hoping that the crest of the next wave will reveal a safe harbor. Lately, however, all I can see is distance. It is disheartening, and almost unspeakably frustrating, because it does not have to be this way.
I believe that most of the solutions we seek are found in the simplest of ways. In my opinion, every American is in their own small manner a public official, and duty-bound to perform three simple acts: pay your taxes, show up for jury duty, and vote in every election. These three acts feed off each other, and are at the heart of that self-improving process which has served us well so many times before. Taxes pay for the infrastructure that makes a society, jury duty improves the laws and invests participants with respect for the process, and voting places into power people who will nominate better judges and use tax revenues wisely - but only if everyone participates. Remove one leg of the tripod, and the whole thing comes crashing down...as it has, so demonstrably, in this sad and degraded age.
Voting is, of course, first above all. A nation that cannot summon the will, or even the enlightened self-interest, to turn out more than 40% of its populace to vote in a midterm election is a nation that does not deserve to complain about anything. Elections in the House and Senate are among the most important events in America, and yet the vast majority of voters in this country can't seem to be bothered. A nation that cannot summon the will or self-interest to turn out more than 60% of its populace during a presidential election is a nation that happily puts its own neck in the noose, and then pules like a spoiled child when the rope chafes and constricts.
Someone once said that decisions are made by those who show up, and when the people do not show up, that void is filled with low men who poison the process with money and greed, who make a living out of convincing Americans that voting is a waste of time, and who summon the infinite gall to blame the process when it fails due to their deliberate and overt disruption.
The arc of America's long decline tracks step for step with the decline in voter participation. With every passing election, we have watched the quality of our governmental representation plummet to an ever-lowering common denominator. With every passing election, more and more of our hard-earned tax dollars are disbursed by these lesser lights to warfare, and to giveaways for the fortunate few who have bought out the whole system in our absence, instead of using those revenues to enhance infrastructure, education and the general quality of life.
Thus, we find ourselves trapped in a Mobius loop of failure and ever widening stagnation; if you think the lack of voter participation has nothing to do with the manner in which the Citizens United Supreme Court decision became the law of the land, I have a fancy red bridge above San Francisco Bay to sell you.
I often fantasize about what would happen if we as a nation could - just one time - summon the will to have 80%-90% turnout in back-to-back elections, one midterm and one general. It is a simple thing - a few minutes on two Tuesdays out of one hundred and four - that would become a transformative event. All the money spent to dissuade you from participating, all the money spent trashing the other guy, all the money spent to keep you from the voting booth, would be swept aside like a puff of smoke in a gale...and on that Wednesday morning, we would wake up in a country that had finally chosen to take control of its own destiny.
I think people would get a taste for it, and the floodgates would open, and the fouled stables of this democracy would be cleansed.
Personally, I don't give a wet damn who you vote for. Republican, Democrat, Green, Libertarian - hell, vote for the egg salad sandwich you almost ordered at the deli - just vote, and it will all come out in the wash. Tell your friends to do the same. Have a hard, serious conversation with anyone you know who calls voting a waste of time...and if you are one of those, find a mirror, and decide for yourself what it is you see staring back at you. Henry David Thoreau argued for non-participation in a broken system, but a system that has been broken by non-participation requires a different remedy.
You may not get the results you seek, but at a bare minimum, you will know that you live in a country whose fate was decided by the people, and not by manipulation and lethargy. That is no small thing, and would be a transformative event unto itself.
A simple solution to an overwhelming problem? Indeed. The best solutions usually are. As far as I am concerned, it is very much worth a try.
Copyright, Truthout. May not be reprinted without permission.
William Rivers Pitt is a Truthout editor and columnist. He is also a New York Times and internationally bestselling author of three books: "War on Iraq: What Team Bush Doesn't Want You to Know," "The Greatest Sedition Is Silence" and "House of Ill Repute: Reflections on War, Lies, and America's Ravaged Reputation." He lives and works in Boston.